The Playgoer: Arts/TV

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Monday, July 24, 2006


A thought provoking survey by Cary Darling of the Dallas Star-Telegram on what's happened to tv arts programming on stations we once used to rely on such as A & E and Bravo. (Remember when they were highbrow?)

Implicit here is an argument to counter Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" theory that the new media favors "niches." Well, not so on Cable, it seems, where the arts were better off when the big networks ruled and there was less "choice."

"It's funny," says Timothy Mangan, classical-music critic for The Orange County Register. "Classical music had a toehold in the popular media until cable along. Johnny Carson would have [violinist] Itzhak Perlman or an opera singer on. Perlman ended up on Hollywood Squares. You could hardly imagine a classical-music person on a game show now."

On the face of it, fine-arts' TV failure is counterintuitive. The audience may be comparatively small, but it's monied and loyal, seemingly a desirable market.
Bravo hit the air in 1980 with programming aimed squarely at this audience, and CBS Cable followed in the fall of 1981 with an ambitious lineup that sprinted the gamut from a biography of James Joyce to a musical based on the poetry of William Blake. A&E came along three years later.

But it soon was clear that not all would survive. CBS Cable succumbed after one year. As The New York Times said in a 1982 piece on the channel's death: "Quality programming is expensive."

Of course the shift that's occured over this time period is also generational. For one thing, I'd say those born after the 60s feel less of that impulse of cultural aspiration toward "high art" that used to make even average folks feel good watching Itzhak Perleman on Carson. (Note the article's editors' decision to insert some ID for Perlman, btw.) High art used to be a significant part of the popular culture. (Cf. Toscanini's celbrity; Looney Toons' classical soundscapes) But the evolution of the "youth culture" the "counter culture" have counteracted that. All mediated by the corporate forces that actually define this "popular culture," of course.

And speaking of "yutes" here's what Bravo says:
"You could argue that a lot of the [fine arts] performance doesn't translate well to television," says Frances Berwick, Bravo's executive vice president of programming. "Our viewers spoke loudly that few people wanted to engage in that media on TV."

Just contemplate that: "fine arts performance doesn't translate well to television."

Well, thank god, at least, for Ovation and Sundance. Oh, and PBS. Sometimes. (Alas poor Trio. At least it's on Broadband now.)

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