Maryland Public Television is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with major physical upgrades, marking middle age with the expansion of its largest studio and the renovation of all six of its TV towers. But even with these concrete changes, MPT stays grounded in its ties to the community, and not surprisingly, its staff plans to celebrate its silver by doing what they’ve done for five decades, providing viewers with great public television.
“I try to make the audience realize how much we appreciate them and that we can’t do what we do at MPT without them,” says Rhea Feikin, the unofficial first lady of MPT and host of “Chesapeake Collectibles” and “Artworks.”
Feikin got her start at MPT on “Consumer Survival Kit,” which helped navigate a modern audience through real-life situations, everything from buying health insurance to caring for a pet. The show first aired in 1973.
Decades later, on “Chesapeake Collectibles,” Feikin is met with warm smiles. She humbly says that she just tries to be herself, because television is an intimate medium in which you cannot fake personality.
“I love filming live because I think the audience is with you,” she says. “They think of us as friends, which we are.”
Although Feikin has always loved her many people were watching until a contractor she hired slyly mentioned her scarf from a previous night’s episode of “Artworks.” Turns out the man and his wife watched the program together all the time. The couple had never gone to a museum, but after watching an episode on Fabergé animals, they decided to go to The Walters Art Museum to see them in person. Now they go to a museum together once a month.
“That’s what public television can do, introduce people to things they might never know otherwise,” Feikin says.
Her own favorite MPT show is “Masterpiece.” “I watch it faithfully,” she says, adding that her Sundays center around that drama series. “Artworks,” meanwhile, remains her baby. Despite a schedule that calls for filming four shows in one day, Feikin says “it’s really not hard. I’m exhilarated by it.”
In FY19, MPT received a little more than a third of its funding from the state, and the rest came from corporate support andmore than 50,000 members across 30 states.
“It makes a lot of money in small amounts. People give $30, $40 or $100,” says Feikin, who is a fixture in fund drives. “It’s always used for programming. Our programs are truly made possible by our viewers.”
Larry Unger, MPT’s CEO, is an avid car lover and a fan of “MotorWeek,” an MPT show that has reviewed, compared and provided news on all types of cars since it first aired in October 1981. In fact, his 1963 Corvette Roadster even made a cameo in one episode, posed alongside a newer model. Unger admits that before coming to the network, he was not a huge public television fan but now he watches “every minute of everything MPT makes.” And he plans to grow MPT and its audience. The more than $9 million renovations to Studio A will nearly double its size from 4,800 to 8,500 square feet. This room will not only allow MPT to rent the space out to movie companies, but also increase its audience for debates, concerts and even the filming of some of its programs. Close to 160 retractable stadium seats will be added.
As for the towers, MPT is upgrading to ATSC 3.0 compliant broadcasting. For nontech gurus, this sounds like an other-world device — and frankly it is. With this technology, “theoretically, I could send you a particular program, or everyone in one county a specific program, and you could watch everything live on your phone,” Unger says. (For viewers to receive this type of high-tech broadcasting, they will need a TV with a 3.0 tuner.)
There will also be two new national productions of Maryland stories on PBS — one will be on Harriet Tubman and the second on Fredrick Douglass. Each hour-long program will air in February 2022.
Unger said all of the improvements are not only necessary updates but support MPT’s legacy of “being a part of the fabric of the community.” To commemorate that legacy, MPT staff created an 82-page history book, a two-hour documentary that aired in August and a year-long museum exhibit at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Hornbake Library. The exhibit starts this fall.
All of this encapsulates how MPT has changed and grown in its 50 years. Feikin says: “There is a greater recognition for the needs of our viewers. We are doing much more to support our state.”