Recently, PBS aired "The Line King," a sublime, insightful documentary on caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose drawings of entertainment figures have been entertaining New York Times readers since the 1920s.
The hourlong documentary, culled from an 87-minute film seen on Cinemax last year, was everything a good documentary should be. Though 94, Hirschfeld remains sharp as the proverbial tack, and he's frequently the best -- as well as most entertaining -- critic of his work. People he's drawn spoke of how they were alternately heartened and mortified to see themselves given the Hirschfeld treatment. And the show offered a look back at the Golden Age of Broadway, an era Hirschfeld so lovingly chronicled.
Unfortunately, if you live in Baltimore, chances are you missed "The Line King." MPT decided against airing the show, opting instead to air an encore presentation of an "American Experience" documentary on the Vietnam War.
"The Line King" isn't the only PBS show to have been pre-empted on MPT. Last year, "Cadillac Desert," a fascinating four-part series on the engineering marvel -- and, to some, environmental nightmare -- that brought a steady supply of water to Southern California, was excluded from the MPT schedule.
Such total deletions are fairly scarce -- more commonly, pre-empted PBS programs are aired at a later date or time -- but the fact is that MPT tinkers with PBS' prime-time schedule more frequently than the other local TV affiliates deviate from what their networks offer.
The reasons, says Zvi Shoubin, MPT's vice president of programming and broadcast services, have to do with the nature of being a PBS affiliate.
"There's a lot of local input into our schedule that a network affiliate doesn't have," Shoubin says from his offices at MPT studios in Owings Mills.
For one thing, the tie that binds MPT to PBS is far looser than the tie that binds, say, WJZ, Channel 13, to CBS.
"Unlike commercial TV," says Robert J. Schuman, MPT's president and CEO, "public stations are a confederation, rather than a network, taking programming from many sources: the national PBS or APT [American Public Television] services, other program syndicators, or producing themselves."
PBS offers its member stations a full slate of prime-time programming Sunday through Friday. Which means that, whenever MPT picks up a program from another source (or produces one itself) and wants to air it in prime time, there are only two choices: air it on a Saturday night, or substitute it for something on the PBS schedule.
Unlike commercial television, money is not an overriding concern. Network affiliates profit directly from airing network shows, both by selling local commercial time and through the fee they receive from the network. Outside of some local underwriting money, PBS member stations do not receive cash for airing PBS shows.
In fact, the main reason many PBS stations broadcast shows simultaneously is essentially a matter of shared resources. When PBS offers the latest from Ken Burns and mounts an expensive ad campaign to promote it, why would a member station forsake all that free publicity and not air it?
A national schedule also makes it easier to attract corporate underwriters, who want the largest audience possible for the shows they help fund.
At PBS, "local autonomy is the rule, not the exception," says John Wilson, PBS' vice president of programming services. "Still, it became clearer and clearer to our stations that there was some practical, pragmatic sense to having a national schedule. It makes promotion more effective, and it made sense to the sponsors of our shows."
Some of the differences between the PBS and MPT schedules can be traced to the agreement PBS has with its member stations. When the commercial networks, for example, offer their shows at a certain time, affiliates usually require permission to deviate from that schedule.
PBS does things differently. Of the up to 350 hours of prime-time programming it offers each year, member stations must agree to air at least 300 hours on the evenings specified, though not necessarily at the same time.
"When we select programs for common carriage, it hinges on three tenets," says Wilson. "Is there going to be a national advertising campaign? Will there be sponsorship, a national underwriter, or the potential for a national underwriter? And third, is there an outreach potential for this show, maybe a Web site, teaching guides?"
PBS officials declined to rate member stations in terms of how many hours of PBS programming they air, but spokesman Stu Kantor said MPT meets the requirement.
When MPT deviates from the PBS lineup, it's usually because station officials believe they have a show that better serves -- or will prove more popular with -- the local audience. And like all public television stations that rely on government funding for substantial portions of their budgets, MPT is expected to tailor its offerings to its community.
"The great strength of the public television system is localism, in that stations are licensed in their state or region to provide local service to their communities," says Schuman. "We are fortunate that there is a wealth of programming, far more than would fit in any one schedule, from which stations can choose to create the best service to fit local needs."
WJHU-FM radio personality Marc Steiner, who can be seen Fridays on MPT's "Newsnight Maryland," suspects part of the reason the station is willing to make programming substitutions is a desire to be all things to all people.
"As a whole, public television stations need to be more willing to air programs that challenge conventional thinking and local mores," he says. "Not giving the public what it craves is sometimes a good thing."
While MPT doesn't do market research per se -- too expensive, Shoubin says -- programmers do read mail from viewers and pay attention to what raises the most money during pledge drives. And there's also a yearly meeting with community representatives, organized by Baltimore's collective radio and television stations.
"In the main, we are aware what programs have a local interest," says Shoubin. "In this marketplace, 'Masterpiece Theatre,' that type of drama, is not as successful as in, say, Washington. The same with opera; it has a much larger audience in the Washington area."
And while historical programming does well on MPT when it sticks to a more national focus, shows that deal exclusively with West Coast history won't cut it here in Maryland, Shoubin says. Which explains why "Cadillac Desert" has yet to be shown on MPT.
"In those time periods, we aired programming that was more indigenous to this area," Shoubin says.
"Skeleton Coast Safari," a show about wildlife on the African desert, qualifies as indigenous?
"That's a popular genre," says Shoubin.