In a recent column, Terry Teachout –– Wall Street Journal theater critic and biographer of Louis Armstrong — asked, ‘What went wrong with PBS’ cultural offerings?’ He goes over the 2009 roster of the network’s flagship arts show, Great Performances — including a pair of Christmas concerts by Andrea Bocelli and Sting — and declares it “both inadequate and unserious.”
“PBS evolved over time [Teachout writes] into a viewer-driven, ratings-conscious enterprise and discovered along the way that high-culture programming is (a) hugely expensive to produce and (b) not nearly as popular as “Antiques Roadshow.” Hence the slow but steady shrinkage of airtime devoted to the fine arts, and the increasing trivialization of such cultural programming as does manage to make it onto the network.”
Why does this matter? For one thing — and this is a point Teachout doesn’t make — opponents of public broadcasting often argue that we don’t need PBS because cable TV has taken over those niche markets. Right. On Bravo and A&E, you can watch hours of Gene Simmons Family Jewels or re-runs of The West Wing before you’ll see anything remotely about art museums or theater. Ovation is about the only cable network that regularly runs shows about Claes Oldenburg or concerts by Leonard Bernstein and even it does relatively little with American art produced somewhere other than New York or LA.
Which is the chief argument Teachout does make for a renewed commitment for arts programming by PBS. Teachout (who visited Theatre 3 last year to review its production of Lost in the Stars) points out the incredible, country-wide influence a show like Great Performances: Dance in America once had. Its telecasts in the ’70s and ’80s, he believes, “triggered the ‘dance boom’ in America—not by telling viewers that George Balanchine and Paul Taylor were important choreographers, but by showing them uncut performances” of their works.
What does Teachout recommend?
This is his proposal:
If I were put in charge of arts programming on PBS and had unlimited funds at my disposal, I’d start by ordering up a monthly series called ‘Art Across America,’ whose raison d’être would be to introduce TV viewers to the full range of fine-arts performances in their own land. None of the episodes would originate in New York, and all would feature works by American artists. Instead of showing a Broadway musical, I’d fly out to Seattle and tape an Intiman Theatre performance of Kate Whoriskey’s staging of ‘Ruined,’ Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning 2007 play about life in a Congo brothel. Instead of showing Andrea Bocelli, I’d telecast David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony performing Samuel Barber’s ‘Prayers of Kierkegaard.’ Instead of showing yet another “Nutcracker,” I’d put Carolina Ballet on the air dancing Robert Weiss’s ‘Messiah.’
Teachout is happy to hear that Paula Kerger, PBS’ president and CEO, is “saying the right things” about devoting one night a week to prime-time arts programming (not only that — something that Teachout doesn’t mention — Kerger talked about the launch of a 24-hour online arts portal in April).
But given the network’s track record over the past decade, it will take more than mere words, however encouraging, to persuade me that PBS means to get serious about the fine arts.