As they continue to address austere financial conditions, officials at Maryland Public Television have instructed programmers to create new features for broadcast even as they cut back on familiar ones.
Among the changes made by the state broadcaster is an end to any new "Bob the Vid Tech" segments. While the character will still act as the host of MPT's bloc of daytime educational shows for children, actor Bob Heck will not tape any new segments in that Emmy-winning role. Instead, the station will rely on an archive of 200 such short pieces that appear between programs.
In another move, the brief, locally produced segments Maryland Legacy and MPT on Location, about the state's historic and cultural figures, will rarely be original pieces. Most will now be excerpted from segments on other MPT shows, such as the cultural program ArtWorks.
It also appears likely that two new half-hour shows on the region's economy and political scene will replace two of the three weekday slots filled by the public affairs show Direct Connection.
The station also is intending to develop new testimonial spots, drawn from the findings of focus groups, research and surveys, to air between shows. People would be shown saying what they most appreciate about MPT's programs.
"We want to play back to [viewers] what they've told us," said Eric Eggleton, an executive vice president and chief content officer. "We're TV that's worth watching" - and, by extension, worth supporting financially, Eggleton said.
Eggleton said the station was also trying to find ways to respond to a Public Broadcasting Service initiative focused on parents. Heck, who has played "the Vid Tech" for a decade, would likely be used in new roles to appeal to parents during child-oriented programming, while making public appearances in his old role.
"Part of what we're doing here is looking at the resources that we have and [trying to] manage them the best we can," Eggleton said. While the total amount of time composed of locally produced shows may dip, dedicating a bloc of time to Maryland-centric programs each weeknight at 7:30 will give them more prominence, he said. Viewers should notice little loss of programming, he said.
Much of the station's current financial difficulties are directly attributed to the firing of Louis Rukeyser this spring from the nationally distributed financial news show Wall Street Week. All four corporate backers dropped their sponsorship of the program, costing MPT $1.5 million in lost revenues in the current fiscal year and $750,000 for the past one.
But the station has also lost membership since it reached a peak of 72,000 two summers ago. It has since ebbed to 65,000 people - a drop of nearly 10 percent. MPT is laying off 32 staffers as it makes up this fiscal year's projected $2.1 million budget shortfall, and it is also dropping promotional and advertising efforts.
As a consequence, some staffers at the state system's Owings Mills headquarters say there is a sense of insecurity there. Concerns persist about the possibility of a new wave of layoffs by the end of this year; and some staffers took umbrage recently when state officials toured the possible site where a future new studio could be built.
"Our rumor mill here runs pretty rampant," said Larry D. Unger, executive vice president and chief financial officer at MPT. "I can say unequivocally, from my vantage point, that there are no further layoffs planned at this time."
As for the new studios, Unger said the $2.6 million facility was merely proposed as part of a larger 10-year master plan required by state law.
"It's not going to be done for awhile, if it's done at all," Unger said.