MPT's 'fabulous' future; Technology: Digital television is expected to open up many possibilities for MPT, perhaps even returning it to school programming.


IT'S 2 O'CLOCK on a Tuesday afternoon in Maryland, circa 2003.

Four-year-old Sally is watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on Maryland Public Television-1. Elsewhere, Jane, 34, is earning credits toward a sociology degree on MPTV-2. Frank, 14, is in school watching MPTV-3; he's learning about the social and economic factors that led to World War I. And 64-year-old Bill, a retiree, is at home watching a debate live from the City Council chambers on MPTV-4.

Now it's 2 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Maryland, January 1999. Sally, along with the other kids in her day care center, is taking a nap. (Back home at 4: 30 p.m., she'll watch "Barney & Friends" on Maryland Public Television.) Jane is watching "As the World Turns" on Channel 13. Frank is at work, far from a TV set, while Bill is watching MPT's 2 o'clock program, "Antiques Roadshow." (Even if he wanted to catch the City Council's Monday evening session, Bill couldn't do it on MPT.)

Such is the contrast presented by public television officials as they make the transition from 50-year-old "analog" technology to "the kind of digital technology that's already at the heart of the computer revolution," according to a public television brochure.

Not only will digital television vastly improve the picture -- I saw a demonstration last week, and it's impressive -- but it will facilitate over-the-air transmission of several pictures simultaneously. (To receive it will require technology that few possess or can comfortably afford, but MPT officials predict prices will drop rapidly.)

"It's fabulous," says Jeff Hankin, MPT vice president of marketing. "It amounts to the convergence of television and computers and all the possibilities that entails." One possibility -- indeed, one reality -- is the embedding of Internet Web sites in TV signals. A teacher can be downloading a lesson plan while her students watch "Zooboomafoo."

MPT has requested $40 million from the state over five years to make the digital transition, a job that requires, among other things, the rebuilding of transmission towers.

Digital television might even return Maryland Public Television to school programming, which it left some years ago while few of us were paying attention. Oh, sure, there's "Sesame Street," still going strong in its 30th year. "Barney" just turned 10. There's "Arthur" and "Teletubbies," "Wimzie's House" and the venerable "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

All will be on PBS's new Kids Channel, a 24-hour-a-day digital cornucopia due for launching in September.

By and large, these programs are fabulous, but most are targeted at preschool kids and most are aired before or after school.

One exception, "Sesame Street," is telecast in Maryland at the educationally convenient hour of 10 a.m., but you will have to look hard to find a school TV set tuned to public television at 10, or at any other time during the school day. State Department of Education specialists once had an office at MPT's Owings Mills studios, but it's long gone.

Of course, plenty of school computers are turned on and tuned in -- to the Internet. CD-ROMs are becoming commonplace. The VCR made possible a proliferation of educational videos. A few of high quality -- "Numbers Alive," "EnviroMysteries," among others -- are products of Maryland Public Television.

During television's infancy in the 1950s, the schools experienced their first electronic revolution since the advent of the film projector. Pupils in all classrooms were to watch educational television daily. In a demonstration project, the Ford Foundation paid a fabulous sum to equip every classroom in Washington County with TV sets tuned to public television.

The revolution lasted through the 1970s. "I can remember when the whole class would tune to instructional TV," remembers Deverne Coleman, a Baltimore primary-school teacher for a quarter of a century. "We've drifted away from that."

The computer and the VCR helped kill instructional television. So did show business. "Sesame Street," winner of 71 Emmys, is more than a program; it's an entertainment industry, generating $20 million a year in licensing fees. "Barney" and "Arthur" aren't far behind. "Wimzie's House," public television's only program set in a home child-care environment, announced the other day that it will market dolls and the like.

Weaned on "Barney" and "Sesame Street," blessed with a closet full of "Barney" and "Sesame Street" products, how impressed is a third-grader going to be with a cheaply produced MPT program titled, say, "Improving Your MSPAP Reading Scores"?

It's possible that digital TV, with all of its exciting possibilities, will bring educational television full circle, back into the classroom.

Nassif named president of Holy Names College

Sister Rosemarie T. Nassif, SSND, former president of the College of Notre Dame and now executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, has been named president of Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif.

Nassif, 57, served four years at Notre Dame. She has headed the fund, an organization promoting public education in Baltimore, for nearly two years.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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