The public square


WE CAME FROM across America - the managers and supporters of public television. Most of us are more comfortable behind the cameras than we are in front of them, but there we were in Washington, surrounded by a media scrum, to participate in a dialogue with many people who aren't members of the same choir.

In case you haven't followed the issue, a House panel had approved a bill that would have reduced funding for public broadcasting by 45 percent next year. Many of my colleagues and millions of public broadcasting's supporters believed strongly that we were in a fight for the future of public broadcasting as we know it. The full House restored most of the cuts.

For the record, this wasn't the first time a handful of legislators had targeted the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio for deep cutbacks. Some may recall how House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried in 1995 to eliminate federal funding for public television. He relented only after a heated public outcry.

Mr. Gingrich believed public television should and could earn its way, competing with other television offerings. But public television was never meant to compete with for-profit broadcasting.

From its inception, public broadcasting was meant to deliver programming that for-profit network and cable providers were unwilling or incapable of providing. Children's programs such as Sesame Street, Arthur and Dragon Tales have a home on PBS and Maryland Public Television because for-profit companies are unwilling to make a commitment to this type of educational, commercial-free content.

Lawmakers who support proposed cuts or the elimination of public television as we know it do not reflect their constituents' confidence in public television. Neither do they reflect the will of President Bush, who included substantial funding for Ready To Learn programs in his administration's budget proposal. Worse, they demonstrate how little they understand the mission and value of public television and the media arena within which it operates.

It has been estimated that just five mega-corporations own and control the vast majority of the world's commercial news outlets - radio, television and print. Viewers, listeners and readers don't know whom to trust. Given this environment, what do citizens in Maryland and across the country say about public television?

In a recent Roper poll, Americans ranked federal support for public television second only to defense as the best use of their tax dollars, surpassing such institutions as courts and law enforcement. At an annual cost of slightly more than $1 per American, federal support for public broadcasting is a bargain.

Beyond its value in their daily lives, those polled said they trust public television more than commercial broadcasters, cable networks and, yes, Congress.

Yet at a time when we should be rewarding those media outlets - public and private - that earn the publics' trust and confidence, public television finds itself on the chopping block.

Does public television have a future in spite of its opponents? Indeed it does.

Beginning several years ago, MPT adopted a new paradigm: public television as the "public square," local television serving local interests - debating issues critical to Maryland's future, examining events that potentially change and shape the lives of our neighborhoods and neighbors. This is how MPT envisions the future of public television evolving - at home and across the nation.

In keeping with the new paradigm, MPT developed the Public Square programming block, including the locally produced Direct Connection and Business Connection, and created "Thinkport," an online educational resource for teachers, parents, students, employees and employers developed in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology in Education. Nationally, public television's Ready To Learn programs and services, championed by First Lady Laura Bush, help build literacy skills among preschoolers.

In most towns in Maryland and across America, the only locally owned television broadcaster is the public station. Unlike commercial broadcasters who are accountable to shareholders scattered across the country, MPT is responsible to the people of Maryland - our neighbors - in homes, businesses and schools across the state.

When Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the national funding arm for public television and radio, it understood that federal support for public stations was vital to preserving America's unique local/national nature. That has not changed.

Marylanders are fortunate that our congressional delegation - Democrats and Republicans - get it. As Marylanders, we owe them our gratitude for their support. They know what I know: The future of public television in Maryland is Maryland. Local public television is the future for all public television stations across this great nation. It offers more bang for the public buck and provides real value.

Robert Shuman is president and CEO of Maryland Public Television.

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