When Steven Schupak talks about the state of public TV today, you can hear the excitement in his voice. "What other channel has membership? What other channel has people leaving money to them in their wills? Not very many," he said. "That's what public television is."
Schupak, who earned a master's degree in management with a specialization in marketing from The Graduate School in 1995, was recently promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer at Maryland Public Television.
Despite funding challenges, public television is enjoying a "bit of a renaissance," Schupak said. Where cable channels once encroached on public TV's bread and butter—science, education, and arts programming and documentaries—that's less of an issue today. Nearly 45 percent of today's cable viewers are flocking to reality television, which he says, creates opportunity for organizations like his.
"There is really no learning on The Learning Channel," Schupak said. "There aren't very many serious documentaries on traditional documentary services like Discovery, and less history on the History Channel than there used to be. Nearly no arts on the Arts and Entertainment [A&E] channel. These are genres that now are being reclaimed by PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] nationally."
Market share for PBS is way up, Schupak noted, leaping from 13th to sixth place over the past two years, and last week, it climbed to fifth. He calls this a golden era for television in general—and for public television in particular.
Schupak's career trajectory didn't always point in this direction. As an undergraduate at New York University, he interned at ABC, then worked full-time at a local ABC affiliate, and later took a job at the network. With some experience under his belt, he realized he was not only handling production logistics and creative decisions but also the business of communications and media.
Working for Bob Wussler—who had been a CBS executive and then senior adviser at Turner Broadcasting before launching Comsat Video Enterprises with the aim of recreating Ted Turner's empire—Schupak looked around and realized he needed a business degree. His colleagues were handling acquisitions of small companies, and he said he felt out of his league.
Researching B-schools, he found many were still using classical examples in their case studies, such as packaged goods companies. In UMUC's program, Schupak found a technology track that spoke his language. Cases centered on Microsoft, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard. "I thought, 'This is much more where my interest is,'" he said.
So he became one of the first students at UMUC's Shady Grove location. "It was not easy going to school at night," he said. "The laptops back in those days were 20 pounds, and there was a lot of traveling to do."
The program also called for a thesis and oral defense. People still talk about the defense, he said, recalling a tight-knit group of classmates who met twice a week to prepare for the difficult oral exam. "The list of questions was really intense," he said.
But Schupak's studies paid off, particularly a class in negotiations that he still remembers clearly.
"I do that almost every day," he said of negotiating with partners, producers, and suppliers. "I did not understand how important negotiation and deal-making were in daily business deals. You can't do anything in public television without partners."
In a recent partnership with Major League Baseball, which beamed to baseball viewers an MPT live show celebrating the 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner," no money changed hands, Schupak said. "But both parties had a fabulous experience."
Much has changed in the industry since Schupak got started. In the early days, there were three major networks and PBS.
"Now look at the cable dial," he said. Schupak and his colleagues have clearly given the dial, and their own station, a great deal of attention. Under his leadership, MPT has won no fewer than 58 Emmy Awards, according to an MPT news release.
"There's never been a more exciting time for communications and media than right now," he said, pointing to different "disruptive" technologies—such as tablets and mobile devices and platforms like Netflix and Hulu—which have changed the face of the industry. And while video was the buzzword when Schupak was cutting his broadcasting teeth, today there are many cable "cord-cutters," and even "cord-nevers," who grew up never having had cable.
No doubt "video" is a foreign language to some today. "Really? Seriously? Video? It seems so pedestrian today," Schupak said. "Some of the biggest names in media weren't even around 10 years ago."
By all accounts, Schupak and his team have adapted well, and he points with pride to MPT programs such as Space Racers, Chesapeake Bay Week, and Star-Spangled Spectacular.
The latter, which took more than two-and-a-half years to plan, was a live two-hour event that PBS carried nationally. It featured music, fireworks, and historical information about Francis Scott Key. "Getting the word out about regional history is a perfect example of why public television is set up the way it is," Schupak said.