View From The West: What Happened to Contemporary Performing Arts on PBS?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Something has gone terribly wrong at PBS. I recall a day when one could actually see Peter Greenaway‘s documentary films on John Cage, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, and Robert Ashley; a documentary on Steve Reich; intermedia and experimental performances, films, and videos on Alive! From Off Center; a significant proportion of modern dance on Great Performances; and more, all on PBS. While such new art never dominated the public television airwaves, neither were they marginalized or excluded. While film and video makers still have a presence on PBS, albeit usually in the late night slot, contemporary performing arts appear to have been replaced by baby boomer-oriented MOR rock, a recent renewal of interest in early doo-wop, R&B and soul, light classical fare (including all the multitudinous variations on the Three Tenors), a very curious and unexpected surge in pop music directed at a rather older viewing demographic like some kind of updated version of the Lawrence Welk (e.g. Roger Whittaker), and all manner of new age-y, glitzy, and otherwise flimsy, mainstreamed versions of world music and dance. Enough of Yanni, Fleetwood Mac, Riverdance, Sarah Brightman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber! Give me some new music and contemporary performing arts of substance and meaning!

It is obvious that fund drives that endlessly repeat concerts by the Eagles; the Moody Blues; and pop, rock, and R&B one-hit wonders generate staggering numbers of pledges and dollars offered up by baby boomers with discretionary, disposable cash, but at what cost to the integrity of public broadcasting? Is there any real, substantive reason for PBS to show the Bee Gees or Sting aside from dollars and more viewers? Are PBS and the local affiliates primarily interested in dollars and ratings? Are rating numbers more important than programming? Must local PBS stations feel compelled to compete with VH-1? Whatever happened to their mission to serve the community as an intelligent, thoughtful alternative to commercial television? The cable arts channels certainly are not flooding the airwaves with performances of experimental music.

If the argument is that more dollars provide for more quality programming, then why the onslaught of mainstream pop culture on PBS to the exclusion of contemporary art music and performing arts? It would appear that none of the extra dollars are going to quality programming of contemporary music and performing arts. The major commercial networks, VH-1 and MTV, are perfectly capable of producing slick concert specials.

If you take money from those supporting another Fleetwood Mac concert, or Blenko Glass for that matter, those viewers will certainly expect more of the same and that is exactly what we are getting. I have nothing against the Bee Gees or Sting, but why PBS feels compelled to air their concert specials is beyond me. Such acts have had plenty of exposure on commercial television and other broadcast media and by presenting their music one more time seems to add little to contemporary culture, especially when it is at the expense of experimental music and performing arts that now get little or no exposure.

Where is the television viewer to go to see contemporary performing arts, whether music, dance, or other performing arts? Where is one to go to learn about such art on the airwaves? Current events productions on PBS are probing, stimulating, informative, and, in general, quite excellent, yet the performing arts presentations on public television are seldom progressive or provocative. Where is the musical equivalent of Bill Moyers, Frontline, or Nova? Instead, the performing arts programming at PBS is increasingly aimed at the middle, if not the lowest common denominator.

Important experimental creative artists whose work often revolves around the medium of video, such as Robert Ashley and Nam June Paik, are almost completely ignored by PBS, yet public television, ideally and ideologically should be the perfect venue for their work. I, for one, have yet to see Ashley’s video operas presented in toto or his Music with Roots in the Aether, a series created with television in mind, on PBS. The Kronos Quartet, carefully coiffed and nattily dressed, yet so very musical and musically challenging, seem especially well-suited to television with their decidedly unstuffy approach to performance and music making. How about a series from The Kitchen modeled after Sessions at West 54th or televising festivals such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music‘s Next Wave, the San Francisco Symphony‘s American Mavericks (if it is ever revived), or Other Minds? (Hey, I can dream can’t I?)

In addition to bringing back more performances of new work on PBS, how about a little pre- or post-performance profile of the composer or creative artist and a discussion of his/her aesthetic or artistic vision? Contemporary music is almost always problematic for the newcomer. Anyone who has ever been to a museum knows how baffling the experience that can be. But those taking a docent or audiotape tour know how helpful, even enlightening, that can be. Even a little bit of information and knowledge can profoundly impact one’s appreciation of a new or unfamiliar art. As we all well know, contemporary music is an acquired, but compelling and rewarding taste. Perhaps a well known, intelligent, articulate, and charismatic spokesman and new music champion such as Michael Tilson Thomas or Brian Eno could moderate or host and help make new music accessible and compelling for a larger audience, as did Leonard Bernstein for classical music in his television series Omnibus and the Emmy Award-winning Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein’s programs were enormously popular and influential, impacting the cultural lives of a generation. With some creative effort from the folks at PBS, contemporary music could be presented as the challenging, thought-provoking, relevant, compelling and, at times, accessible art that it is. What Robert Hughes, in The Shock of the New, and Sister Wendy Beckett, in Sister Wendy’s American Collection, did so successfully for the visual arts on PBS, others could do for contemporary music.

While the situation is bad at PBS, it is not utterly desperate. In recent months they have profiled and paid tribute to Picasso, Matisse, Samuel Beckett, and Akira Kurasawa. Kudos to them for such important programming. Surely, then, it would be appropriate that they produce similar programs saluting and dedicated to Cage, Boulez, Nancarrow, Partch, and Messiaen.

Of course, the blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the programmers at PBS and the local affiliates. As subscribers, or potential subscribers, we need to voice our opinions regarding programming and service to the arts community. The contemporary arts demographic may be small, but we must be heard. It is the obligation of public broadcasting to serve smaller but culturally important interest groups. And, of course, there is the issue of funding arts programming. Still, with a determined commitment to the arts, such funding could eventually be found.

If PBS is to be a public service rather than a ratings and dollar obsessed entity, it must reconsider its mission and its concept of and contribution to the music and arts communities.