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Terry Teachout: Bring the Arts Back to PBS

by Jerome Weeks 23 Mar 2010 9:16 AM

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 […]



Paula Kerger

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.

  • I think you guys at KERA could shed just as much light on this problem as anyone, unless it’s PBS that’s repeatedly pushed you to bump Art 21 to off hours in favor of things like Monty Python, rather than it being your own programming decision.

    I understand that a membership-driven media outlet has to be responsive, and maybe programming for the popular vote is the reality that PBS, you AND I have to live with. But it seems to me a dead-end road.

    A population that doesn’t understand or appreciate fine art won’t get their left to its own choices, and if I allowed my kids to grow up consuming just what they wanted, well, you get my drift.

  • arts patron

    I completely agree. It’s hypocritical for PBS to ask me to donate in the name of serving some important cultural need that PBS supposedly fills, and then flood the schedule with drek like “Celtic Woman” and “David Foster – Hitman”.

    And don’t pull the “cultural democracy” b.s. Be honest – no one involved in putting together the mass-marketed straight-to-PBS stuff like Celtic Woman or Lord of the Dance thinks that they’re creating great art. Come on, dare to have some standards. Who is worse: the person who sells out, admits that he’s sold out and markets Two and a Half Men to the masses, or the guy who really believes that he’s serving a higher calling, wraps himself in self-righteousness and then trots out Celtic Woman? At least the first guy is honest.

  • ToscasKiss

    This is my old complaint, and it’s a serious problem. I don’t subscribe to KERA for wall-to-wall doo-wop, Wayne Dyer (oy), Andrea Bocelli, cheesy faux “Celtic” shindigs and an overdose of mediocre Brit-coms (yes, some of them are fun, but we’ve got a surfeit, and many are just not very good, Anglo accents notwithstanding). Give me more live performance of the kind not to be found elsewhere on TV: theater, opera, dance, and such, including classics and contemporary. And please promote it well, so we know it’s showing, and when. Very frustrating to happen to stumble upon PASSING STRANGE halfway through. That is one show that should be repeated and advertised, so more folks get to experience it. While that, for instance, is available on DVD, I want such things airing on TV so more people, especially young people, can discover it and maybe develop a taste for live theater. Public TV is so important, and I hate to see it so overrun with not very special programs.

  • (CORRECTION: “…won’t get THERE left to its own choices…”)

    And while I’m talking to myself, I’ll just add that Art&Seek blog posts themselves reflect an interesting aspect of this issue. I’ve long observed that the vast majority are, as in Teachout’s supposition, heavy on the performing arts – drama, music, film etc. – with much less attention paid to Visual Art. All you chirping crickets out there reading this might do your own tally, but I’ll venture to guess it’s at least 4 to 1.

    So I wonder if Art&Seek’s coverage is also an indicator that, to whatever degree there IS interest in the Fine Arts, it will play to the “entertain me” mindset of “viewers like you.” I’ll acknowledge my own bias as a sculptor, but the point remains the same, as in Teachout’s own anecdote about dance: the network willing to stick its neck out and carry challenging programming can expect to have a very real impact on everyone’s understanding and appreciation of all the Fine Arts.

  • Hey all,
    I can’t speak to PBS, but I can to Art&Seek. James, thanks for your note. We do cover a mix of visual arts. In the last week, we’ve posted video of Joshua Goode and his exhibit at Guerilla Arts, mentioned the Henderson Avenue Art Project and the recent book/study led by the DMA’s Bonnie Pitman and added to the Art&Seek artist studio tour. Throw in more substantial recent radio pieces on Charles IV exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Lou Reed’s photographs in Wichita Falls, and Piotr Chizinski’s show at Richland College, and that’s not a bad showing from a four-person team. However you raise a good point about our mix. We’re always trying to strike a balance. Hopefully we do that over time. But always feel free to nudge us when you think we’re drifting. Ooh, and one other thing, since we’re talking about television. We’ve been experimenting with creating interstitials out of the Art&Seek segment of Think. These shorter pieces are running throughout the viewing schedule, bringing our arts television programming to a much broader audience. If that’s successful – and so far, it really has been – hopefully you’ll see more of it in the future. So… supporting KERA really is making coverage of North Texas arts possible on radio, television and Web. And that coverage is growing and developing as Art&Seek does.