PBS Arts Fall Festival
Arts try out for PBS slot on Fridays
With a nod to mission — and a bid for more major donors — PBS is spotlighting the arts for nine weeks this fall, hoping to bring them back as a regular feature of Friday nights.
Productions in the first PBS Arts Fall Festival range from the Los Angeles Opera’s Il Postino to the broadcast premiere of Cameron Crowe’s documentary on grunge-rock pioneers Pearl Jam. The network pulled together some $2 million in funding for the shows, each paired with a different locale and station. The festival will culminate with a yet-to-be-announced fundraising special during December pledge drives.
Ratings-wise, it’s a risky move. “Some cultural programming works better than others,” said Judith LeRoy, co-director of TRAC Media Services, the main audience analysis firm for pubTV stations. “Boston Pops, that does well. A Mahler symphony, that’s fair to middling. Dance and opera — those numbers are really, really, really sparse.” LeRoy anticipates some pushback from programmers who have been getting respectable ratings for local public-affairs shows on Friday evenings.
But ratings aren’t the reason for the fest. In a presentation at the 2009 Round Robins, PBS told g.m.’s that the network was created “in part to take creative risks that commercial networks are unwilling to take, and an initiative designed to promote the arts is perhaps closest to our mission and — given its limited presence elsewhere on television — most critically aligned to what we do in public broadcasting.”
“No other organization can restore the relevance and importance of the arts in America like PBS can,” the presentation said, “and no other organization can make the arts as accessible and available to everyone.”
And the arts come with well-heeled enthusiasts. Major donors to public broadcasting often give money “not only because they’re interested in the arts but also because they believe in the role that PBS plays in the arts,” said John Wilson, PBS’s chief programmer. “They are really committed to getting that content in front of large audiences. That’s what can motivate major donors at both national and local levels.”
“We didn’t see that as a prime reason for the arts festival,” Wilson added, “but more as an opportunity that if we put a spotlight on arts content, we can hopefully create not only a reason for viewers to find that content but also help make supporting the arts even easier for major donors and foundations.”
High on Kerger’s to-do list
The project has remained a top priority for PBS President Paula Kerger, who brought in millions of dollars as a top WNET executive and a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Opera before coming to PBS in 2006. “I really think when Paula came in the door this was on her to-do list, and she clearly knew what she was talking about,” Wilson said.
Back at WNET in the mid-1990s, Kerger and programmer Glenn DuBose had worked together on City Arts, a stylish half-hour magazine show that won a Peabody and several Emmys (Current, July 6, 1998). “So she and I were sort of in the trenches together,” said DuBose, who teaches college in Florida.
Kerger brought on DuBose in 2009 as a consultant to head up the fall festival. She first asked DuBose to put together his “ideal season” — dream big. So DuBose thought up 48 weeks of shows. “I said, do you care if I spend $20 million?” Of course, he said, those early plans were pipe dreams.
After reality prevailed, he adopted a feasible approach that appealed to him. “I liked the idea of coming from various cities,” he said, “so we’re celebrating this rich cultural heritage. We came up with the concept of arts in America.” Stations could also collaborate on that.
Funding was a challenge. In its 2011 draft budget, PBS had targeted both the arts and news and public affairs for growth to “fulfill our public service mission” because the subjects are “inadequately served by the market.” However, Kerger later decided to back away from the news initiative “until we make sure we have the capital to execute it,” she said in an interview (Current, May 16).
But PBS had a seedling of support sprouting for an arts focus. Kerger announced a “very large grant” for the arts during a March 2010 PBS Board meeting, which turned out to be $800,000 from the Anne Ray Charitable Trust. The network received $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for its PBS Arts Online website (PBS.org/arts), which launched in August 2010. More than $100,000 earmarked for arts came from the estate of Keith Jones of Phoenix. Wilson also said the National Programming Service supplied a “modest contribution.” PBS declined to provide specific budget figures.
DuBose built the festival around five shows from WNET’s icon series Great Performances and American Masters. He identified other episodes from stations or independent producers, “and with the limited funds, we were able to develop four of those,” he said.
David Horn, executive producer of Great Performances, said the series is a logical partner. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but we’ve been doing regional opera, ballet and symphonies for quite a few years,” he said. “So this was easy for us. We already had the shows. It was just question of PBS choosing which ones to make a good mix.”
Herding 40 ballerinas
DuBose is pleased with the lineup, particularly “PBS Arts from Minnesota: Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore,” which kicks off the series Oct. 14. He’s just back from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis where he saw the dress rehearsals. “It’s really terrific,” DuBose said — “what a regional theater should be.”
The nine productions in the festival do have their regional aspects, but not all of them came from the work of the stations identified with them in PBS publicity. PBS selected some because they “felt right” with the subject, DuBose said, as was the case with North Carolina’s UNC-TV network and the independent production that became “PBS Arts from the Blue Ridge Mountains: Give Me the Banjo.”
Arts producer Marc Fields shot star banjo performers and host Steve Martin in numerous locations. The instrument has been tightly connected with the folk music of North Carolina and southern Virginia, DuBose said, “so it seemed right to come from the Blue Ridge Mountains.” UNC-TV became the host broadcaster.
WPBT in Miami is host of the Great Performances presentation of “Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine & Tharp.” Producers from WNET used the Miami station’s studios to shoot the show, which created a slight logistical problem there, said Dolores Sukhdeo, c.o.o. of WPBT. The platoon of dancers needed a large area for costume changes, and WPBT’s only suitable space was its Board of Directors’ room. So board members convened at a university across the street while their room was used by the dancers.
“We got 40 ballerinas in there,” Sukhdeo said proudly.
Each participating station also got funding for a short local doc, eight to 14 minutes, to round out the main presentation and highlight local culture. “We didn’t want it to be a promo film for that area,” DuBose said. “Each station decided with our approval and input what they thought best represented arts in their city.” In Chicago, it’s architecture. “The first woman to build a skyscraper was there,” he said. WTTW “wanted to showcase Chicago as an architectural city. That was their idea, but we liked it too.”
The Chicago presentation also had Windy City roots. Local Kartemquin Films’ A Good Man follows choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones as he creates an homage to Abraham Lincoln, favorite son of Illinois, which premiered at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.
Local Fridays are doing okay
PBS selected Friday nights for its arts concentration in part because “that’s where we had space to accommodate it,” Wilson said. “And it’s nice to both end the week and begin the weekend” with such entertainment.
LeRoy of TRAC also pointed out that Friday has been a weak ratings night for public TV. Typically, Washington Week scores around 0.5; the non-PBS roundtable McLaughlin Group, 0.4; WNET’s Need to Know, 0.3. “The audience for the Friday night national product really has dwindled,” she said.
However, LeRoy added, she finds it “intriguing” that numbers for various local programs on Friday nights “haven’t been bad. They’ve maintained their stability.” Chicago Tonight, for instance, often scores a 2.0 or above.
Dan Soles, programming v.p. at WTTW in Chicago, has a strong Friday-night lineup, including Chicago Tonight: Week in Review and the local dining show Check, Please! And he doesn’t anticipate changing it to accommodate the arts shows, which PBS planned for 9 p.m. Eastern.
“We’ll do the arts festival later,” at 10 p.m. Eastern, 9 Central, Soles said. However, he likes the general idea. “We own the arts — very few other broadcasters or cable channels are doing that type of programming,” he said. “A nine-week festival sort of puts our PBS stamp on it. It’s a good reinforcement of who we are and what we do.”
So how about a permanent Friday evening home for the arts? “Beyond the festival — I haven’t thought about it,” Soles said.
But that is a definite possibility and a logical outgrowth of the festival. “Without creating a lot of new programming,” Horn said, “there are enough shows to fill 52 weeks a year, easily.” They’re just scattered around the schedule now.
Air the arts, and fans will come
Programmer John Decker at KPBS in San Diego said he has “a reasonably good lineup on Friday nights — we’ve been happy with it.” Included are San Diego Week, Washington Week and a re-air of Frontline. But KPBS will go with the festival on Fridays “because we recognize the collective power of having all the stations run it,” he said.
Decker said he sees PBS “making a strategic choice” with the festival “about what distinguishes us from the competition and what we can leverage as far as viewer-sensitive revenue. Arts and culture aficionados are looking to PBS.” He knows by experience: Such KPBS viewers “get irritated when we move arts out of primetime to Sunday afternoon.” Other viewers may have mixed feelings, Decker said, “but we need to leverage our image and uniqueness.”
As WNET’s Horn said, “If we build things in the arts arena, people will notice. And major gifts will come attached.”
That’s true for stations located farther from Lincoln Center, he added. “Whoever is on the board of a public TV station in any town is probably on the board of other arts organizations,” he said. “People view public TV as an arts organization, like a museum or symphony.”
Horn hopes programmers and audiences give Friday night arts a chance. “But nine weeks — I don’t know if that’s a large enough sampling,” he said.
Wilson said PBS will parse viewer and station reaction carefully before committing to an all-arts Friday night. The decision-makers want to know: By airing arts programs every week, will PBS broaden or enlarge its audience? Will it increase the number of arts programs that people see? Will hosting the shows in different cities appeal to viewers? Will involvement in the festival help stations solidify community bonds? Will they find new partners, funders or content opportunities?
Meanwhile, at least four producers have already approached DuBose about what they hope will be a second season of the arts festival next year. And he is dreaming of expanding the effort to include comedy, visual arts and poetry, he said. “I hope we’ll find a way to finance something on a yearly basis.”
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