Courtesy of my fellow artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow, I read a terrific piece from Opera News about the gradual disappearance of opera on public television. It seems the ratings just aren’t there–nobody wants to watch opera on TV, or on PBS, anyway. (And it’s not just opera. When did you last see a first-rate ballet on public TV?)
Two telling quotes. The first is from John Goberman, who produces Live at Lincoln Center for PBS:
In a way, we’re denying the use of our airwaves to a gigantic number of people by not offering something that more will find appealing. I’m not necessarily talking about pandering. I just feel it’s my obligation to deal realistically with our potential audience. I wouldn’t put an opera on that I thought would appeal to practically no one, or even an opera people thought they might want to see but if they saw it, I thought they would hate it. Is Porgy and Bess an easier sell than Dead Man Walking? Yes. With television, you have to keep in mind that you’re dealing with access to the greatest number of people. In the same way that you wouldn’t put on a specialized opera in Madison Square Garden or at Yankee Stadium, there is the same sort of calculation with what we’re doing here.
The second is from Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director of New York City Opera and the man responsible for making NYCO the most interesting big-city opera company in America:
Lincoln Center and Live from Lincoln Center and PBS are all interested in works that have a very broad public appeal. When I first came here, six years ago, John Goberman said we would have the final word on what we would broadcast. Well, we did wind up broadcasting a couple of things that were not of huge public interest–Lizzie Borden and Paul Bunyan. I was idealistic in those days. I still am, but back then I certainly thought these operas would have an audience, that a loyal audience that turned on Live from Lincoln Center for whatever was on would become involved. But that is not how this works. So, increasingly, what television audiences are asking for–and this is being responded to by the network and the sponsors and the whole enterprise of Live from Lincoln Center–are operas that have a name and a broad public appeal. I don’t use the word “warhorses.” I would say, things that are generally known to a wide public. This year there’s just nothing in our repertory that works. I would love to broadcast Dead Man Walking. It is and would be TV-friendly. But we are one of many constituents who make up Lincoln Center. And Live from Lincoln Center now determines what it is that it wants to broadcast.
I want to add two things:
(1) Three cheers to Paul Kellogg for telling the truth. Not many people in his position would do that in public.
(2) If this is the kind of calculation PBS is making about its arts coverage, then there’s no justification whatsoever for the existence of PBS–that is, for a subsidized, “public,” non-commercial TV network that presumably exists to do what the commercial networks won’t do, starting with the dissemination of high art. None. Zero. I’m picking up a strong whiff of hypocrisy here, and I don’t like it one bit. To hell with Live at Lincoln Center. Screw Ken Burns. Pull the plug and leave the job to the commercial arts channels, which don’t pretend to be anything other than profit-making entities. At least they’re honest about it. PBS isn’t.