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The arts on PBS is essential viewing, essential funding, with 'front-row seating'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, June 9 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

The world’s largest theater has no gilded proscenium, no plush velvet curtain and no ushers. The onstage performers are widely acknowledged as world-class artists, outstanding in their individual fields. The subscription ticket price is not the hundreds of dollars one would expect to pay for a year-long series of entertaining shows, but is under 5 cents.

Your season-ticket seats are not in the theater rear, with limited view of the stage. For in this theater venue, you are comfortably seated, in your family room to view PBS arts and cultural programs.

PBS event viewing is the only source for continuous arts programming on television — comprising the most-honored and longest-running performance series in the medium’s history.

“Part of the legacy of the work we’ve done over the years at PBS has been to bring the arts to every portion of the country,” said Paula Kerger, president and chief executive of the PBS media organization. “No matter where you live or what your economic means, you’ll be able to have a front-row seat at some of the greatest performances that are held in this country.

“If you go back and look at our history, it shows that we were founded to fill in the gaps of market failure,” she continued. “There was an early recognition that there were certain things that commercial media was never going to be able to pick up. Even now in a 500-channel universe, there still are these great gaps. And I still see these gaping gaps holes in terms of the performing arts. Most of the arts are absent from television; whole genres of art are missing — the American songbook, jazz, classical music, dance, theater, musicals.”

Numerous commercial channels have abandoned or modified arts programming for more lowbrow shows that sell better. Networks once devoted to the arts like A&E and Bravo have shifted to reality fare like “Storage Wars” and “The Real Housewives.”

But federal funding for this specialty form of enlightening and uplifting arts programs is being reduced. The National Endowment for the Arts, the federal organization that was originally founded to support PBS arts programs, has cut funding to PBS — drastically.

NEA funds for “Great Performances at the Met” were $150,000 in 2011, but are $50,000 in 2012; “Great Performances” and “American Masters,” both $400,000 in 2011, $50,000 in 2012; and “Live from Lincoln Center,” $100,000 in 2011, $0 in 2012.

“The major reduction in funding is for fiscal year 2014, therefore we are now faced with filling the combined loss of $1,050,000 in funding from our current seasons of ‘Great Performances’ and ‘American Masters,’” said David Horn, an executive producer of PBS programs. “If we cannot fill this gap then, obviously, we cannot help as many regional arts organizations and independent filmmakers share their work with the nation.”

The number of Americans viewing the arts on PBS is staggering. In 2011, PBS offered 500 hours of arts and cultural programming, which was watched by 121 million people, according to Nielsen’s NPower television ratings analysis.

The individual average viewership of “American Masters” and “Live from Lincoln Center” is 1 million and 800,000 for “Great Performances,” according to Harry Forbes, a spokesperson for WNET, the New York City PBS outlet where these programs originate. The 1998 broadcast of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” stage musical garnered 6 million viewers, he added.

Surveys by independent organizations have continued to show American interest in PBS arts programs, according to the national president, including NEA’s own study in 2009, called NEA Audience 2.0.

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