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.

“With Salt Lake City’s vibrant arts community, we have an audience that loves and honors the arts,” said Mary Dickson, creative services director for the University of Utah-affiliated PBS outlet. “The interest level in the arts and arts programs is far higher than people would initially consider.

“That’s the real beauty of PBS,” she added. “No matter where you live in Utah, you have access to tremendous programs on the arts, and Utahns enthusiastically support the arts.”

Kerger noted that PBS ratings continue to climb nationwide for TV shows, along with the popularity for PBS’ online content. In a recent month, PBS recorded 186 million video streams as the national outlet continues to explore new avenues to increase viewership.

She explained NEA estimates that $1.35 is currently being contributed annually per taxpayer, with “mere pennies” of that amount reserved for arts and cultural programs, before the most recent reductions. These federal dollars are particularly important to smaller stations. For many stations, the appropriation counts for as much as 40-50 percent of their total budget.

Fund drives directed to “viewers like you” will continue, along with the dedication of PBS executives to source contributions from private individuals and large corporate charitable entities, she noted. But federal funds remain crucial to the continued excellence of the mission of PBS to support national and local arts events.

The extremely popular PBS broadcast of “Downton Abbey,” which entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the year’s “most critically acclaimed English-language television show” and boasted 5.4 million viewers for the season finale, should have a ripple effect on the PBS network, Kerger noted.

How can the one viewer’s voice be heard to encourage increased national funding of PBS programming?

“I’ve not tried to encourage any large, grass-roots efforts, but I think people should let the NEA know if they have issues with the focus of their funding,” Kerger said. While there are large organizations, like Americans for the Arts and 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting, dedicated to encourage support of national funds for PBS, she recommended addressing concerns to Rocco Landesman, NEA chairman, either through direct correspondence or a phone call, following information available on nea.gov.

Artists sing praises to PBS arts shows

Esperanza Spalding is the first jazz performer to win a Grammy for Best New Artist. President Barack Obama requested she sing at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Her “Chamber Music Society” was the best-selling contemporary jazz album last year. What was her inspiration for pursuing a life in music?

“I saw a ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’ program with Yo-Yo Ma when I was about 5,” Spalding has said. “And I said, ‘Mom, I want to do that. You know, whatever that is, I want to do that.’ The first 10 years of my musical life were as a violinist because of seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform.”

Spalding is certainly not alone. An untold number of gifted artists enjoyed their first exposure to the arts through a PBS program.

Wendy Wasserstein, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, also has a testimonial for PBS arts telecasts.

“I owe the launch of my career as a playwright to (PBS producer) Jac Venza and ‘Great Performances,’” the playwright told a gathering of broadcasters in 1994. “For public television is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary; something very special and precious. Public television has not only brought the finest in the arts to millions of people who would never otherwise have experienced them, but it has also shaped the direction of those arts. It has given voice to new talent even as it has celebrated the canon of great works.

“The most wonderful thing public television has done is bring the arts to so many people,” she continued. “I’m referring to the extraordinary variety of work I see on public television. Dance, theater, opera, jazz, film. The grand, right next to the intimate, a jazz classic beside an opera classic, the gentle beside the shocking. That’s America, if you ask me.”

Wasserstein’s first play, “Uncommon Women and Others,” was broadcast on PBS’s “Great Performances” in 1978, giving the first national exposure for its stars, Meryl Streep, Swoozie Kurtz and Jill Eikenberry, while they were in their 20s.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, hailed as the “most influential documentary maker of all time," offered his support of funding for PBS arts in a February 2011 Washington Post editorial.

“Like millions of my countrymen, I am profoundly concerned that the debate over government spending, while necessary, has come to threaten the cultural, educational, informational and civilizing influences that help equip us for enlightened citizenship. Suddenly, these are dismissed as ‘unaffordable luxuries’ when in fact we have never needed them more,” he wrote.

“With minimal funding, PBS manages to produce essential commercial-free children’s programming as well as the best science and nature, arts and performance, and public affairs and history programming on the dial — often a stark contrast to superficial, repetitive and mind-numbing programming elsewhere.”

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