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The future of MPT After Ho: TV commission should be wary of altering a course that viewers like.


THE SEVERING of ties between Maryland Public Television and Raymond K. K. Ho, the man who shepherded the station into a new era for public broadcasting, was unpleasant, unfortunate and, ultimately, unavoidable. Mr. Ho can blame no one more than himself. Even many of his supporters winced at his comments that the governor wanted to usurp MPT for political ends or that a "Jewish conspiracy" was after him. Mr. Ho is a brilliant man, but any fool knows you don't pick a public fight with your boss.

The more important question for the 1.1 million homes that tune into MPT regularly is: What now? They want to know whether the "Children's Channel," MPT's superb expansion of quality kids' programming, will grow. They want to know about the slate of national programming, some of which emanates from MPT as the fourth largest producer of public broadcasting shows. They want to know about the station's continued commitment to education through initiatives such as interactive "field trips" to Antarctica and outer space.

Some commission members have indicated a desire for a greater focus on Maryland. That's fine, although the station already devotes many hours to local and state political coverage plus regional historical pieces that complement national programming such as the acclaimed series on the Civil War. Many viewers would be disappointed if a local concentration came at the expense of the broader offerings Mr. Ho pursued. His critics may point to productions or experiments that flopped, but success in business is about taking calculated risks, and you can't argue with MPT's bottom line in Mr. Ho's time: viewership up 87 percent, revenue up 70 percent.

While Mr. Ho's cries of political persecution are overwrought, it's probably true that his frenetic style meshed more easily with former Gov. William Donald Schaefer than with Gov. Parris Glendening, who didn't waste any time in making his mark on the board that oversees MPT. Perhaps the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission should not be wholly appointed by the governor with the state supplying much less of MPT's budget than before.

But the main issue here isn't politics or votes -- unless you count the $4.5 million that Marylanders donate to their public television station (double the sum when Mr. Ho arrived in 1986) as voting with their pocketbooks. Viewers clearly like what they have been seeing on public television. The commission will need to keep that in mind as they find a successor and chart a course for Maryland public broadcasting into an era that will be more treacherous than MPT's first 25 years.

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