Classical Music in the Era of ESPN

What if there was a ESPN's Scorecenter that showcased music scores.

What if there was a ESPN’s Scorecenter that showcased music scores?

Imagine a television station where live performances of select national events are broadcast seven days a week. While the events themselves are often quite expensive to see in person, the broadcasts are available for anyone with a cable subscription, ensuring access to millions of television viewers across the nation regardless of income or location. Those who create and organize these performances give short live interviews, both before and after the events. In-between events, news programs are held discussing upcoming live shows, recapping past events, and giving behind-the-scenes looks at programs that are still in development.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it already exists—and it is called ESPN.

We musicians often bemoan the attention that our society lavishes on professional athletics, while our concert halls struggle to fill seats. It is true that athletics has always been a large part of 20th-century American culture. However, for a brief period of time—primarily during the heyday of radio—our professional orchestras shared the spotlight with athletics. Radio stations that would broadcast local baseball games would also broadcast live performances of our radio orchestras. In the world of radio, both athletics and music were treated as equal partners. But much of this changed with the advent of mass media and cable television.

I don’t believe that I exaggerate when I say that, over the past 35 years of its existence, ESPN has successfully transformed professional and collegiate athletics (which, some would argue, are more or less the same…but I digress) from a “mere” multi-million dollar enterprise into the multi-billion dollar juggernaut that it is today. It is ESPN that has allowed millions of cable subscribers to tune into their favorite sports teams on almost any given day, follow their every off-season move, and obsess over the slightest minutia of their all-star fantasy football/baseball/water-polo roster. It allows any sports fan to consume sports entertainment twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—as much as they can handle. Miss the game? Catch the recap. Anticipating the next game? Catch the “pre-pregame” interview.

Which makes me wonder: is it possible that this model—one that has turned professional athletics into a multi-billion dollar enterprise—could work in bringing classical music to a much broader audience? Would a “classical music ESPN” work in bridging the gap between our great musical institutions and every cable-subscribing home in America? By leveling the media playing field, could classical music once again compete for the attention of American households?

Sure, there are plenty of ways for individuals to watch and/or listen to recorded broadcasts of concerts. PBS does a great job of providing a multitude of concerts for viewing. If recorded concerts could develop a great audience, perhaps a model similar to MTV would work. However, those of us who work, eat, breath, and sleep classical music know the sheer excitement of watching a live performance. Think of this from the sports perspective—how many people do you know who get excited over taped broadcasts of live athletics? I can think of three, and they are all a tad on the obsessive side.

(Besides, we all know what MTV has turned into. I am personally not interested in seeing “The Real World: Boston Symphony Orchestra.” Wait, actually…)

Similarly, we can point to many individual efforts by orchestras, opera companies, and radio stations to provide live radio and internet broadcasts of their performances. However, these broadcasts are not centrally located, and are primarily targeted to those who are already classical music connoisseurs. If you are not a fan of classical music, you are not going to suddenly find yourself on the New York Philharmonic website, accidentally listening to their live concert.

Which is why a “classical music ESPN” could work. Heck, the Golf Channel has existed now for over a decade, so why not a channel dedicated to the live performance of classical music? Why not a channel that would bring conductors, composers, and performers into every cable-owning home in America? Then, instead of watching that rerun of Storage Wars: Texas for the seventeenth time, you could obsessively follow live news updates on the recent premiere of Andrew Norman’s Piano Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic. (Hey, I would!)

Of course, there are insurmountable hurdles to overcome to make this work, not the least of which is money. Lots of it. More than most of us reading this article probably have. Additionally, there would need to be a buy-in from all of America’s greatest classical music institutions. Imagine ESPN without the New York Yankees? It would be the same if a station like this existed but the New York Met (as opposed to the Mets) didn’t sign up.

And what about ticket sales? Sure, initial sales might struggle slightly, but if this were at all successful then I can’t think of any better way to increase sales than to bring classical music to a much broader audience. Of course, if this became a deal-breaker then local concerts could be blacked out in the same way manner as local sporting events.

So, what do you think? Is this just a harebrained idea of mine, or does it have merit? Could it ever happen? Perhaps not. But then again, I don’t know if the founders of ESPN ever would have imagined the sort of colossal enterprise their fledgling station would turn into three decades down the road.

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Froelich

Kenneth D. Froelich (photo by Janna Melkonian)

Kenneth D. Froelich is a composer and Associate Professor of Music at California State University, Fresno. Froelich’s music has been performed worldwide, with notable performances by Earplay, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and Pacific Serenades. He currently serves as the director of Fresno New Music, where he seeks to showcase a wide variety of composers and new music performing ensembles in the greater Fresno metropolitan area.

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23 thoughts on “Classical Music in the Era of ESPN

  1. Eric

    Great insights and hoping this sparks further discussion. I think one of the challenges is region of coverage. Yes, classical music is very international, but also regional. Some artists (even contemporary-leaning performers) tour with the same group pieces in a given period of time, so how do you cover something that’s been done elsewhere as different? I think there are web outlets that try to cover the breadth of classical music, but in the end fall to be a bit regional despite their pronouncements of big coverage. I can only hope there is a way to create a content stream for all things classical that hits on all cylinders.

    Reply
    1. Kenneth D. Froelich Post author

      Good point! Touring and regional coverage would be a bit more of a challenge (of course, not including the challenges already mentioned), but worth looking into as well. Perhaps this would be something to add in over time, if this model were to be successful? Or maybe there would be a way to bring in local affiliates, similar to how simultaneous games are broadcast to different regions. This is all brainstorming right now, so who knows!

      Reply
    1. Kenneth D. Froelich Post author

      Really? I don’t know much about Bravo’s history, but I remember it back in the ’80s as a channel that primarily featured independent and classic film, with the occassional performing arts broadcast. I could be wrong, though.

      Reply
      1. Steven Cartwright

        Wikipedia knows all (I sincerely hope): “Originally focused on programs pertaining to fine arts and film, the channel [Bravo] currently broadcasts a mix of reality series aimed primarily at females between the ages of 25 and 54 years old, along with acquired drama series and more mainstream theatrically released feature films.”

        Reply
  2. David MacDonald

    This was kind of the idea we had when we started SoundNotion.tv. Our inspirations were ESPN and the tech podcast network TWiT.tv. Unfortunately, doing that kind of programming well enough to get make it worth watching requires a bit of capital. We’ve gotten to where we are now with basically no money. I would certainly watch a network like the one you described.

    Reply
  3. Janet Shapiro

    In the 1980’s there were 3 “cultural cable” services. A & E used to mean “Arts and Entertainment.” Now it means “A & E.” Bravo did indeed start out as a cultural cable service (my husband worked for it back then.) CBS Cable was the third – it was a pet project of Chairman William Paley. CBS killed it the day after he retired. There was not much audience, and production worthy of watching isn’t cheap. If you can figure out a model that works, we’ll be happy to run it for you.

    Reply
    1. Kenneth D. Froelich Post author

      Thank you for the feedback! Do you know if Bravo, A&E, or CBS Cable ran live broadcasts, or if they were taped performances?

      I honestly don’t know if what I write about is a model that would work or not – this is mostly a brainstorming exercise; however, I also wonder if older models were ahead of their time and suffered due to older technology. HD audio may be a difference maker here.

      Reply
      1. Janet Shapiro

        To the best of my knowledge, just about everything was taped. Some programs were licensed from Europe, but others, at least on Bravo, were original productions. Back then editing tools weren’t nearly as sophisticated as today’s, so the finished product wasn’t as polished as something you might see today, but nevertheless, mistakes – audio and video – were fixable. And the line cut (what the director calls live) could be enhanced.

        Reply
  4. Jeremy

    I think this could make for a brilliant concept, or a hilarious comedy sketch, or maybe both…

    It’s a chance to ignite a national discussion, and to unite artists (or musicians at least) on a national (or international) scale. One exciting possibility: whereas ESPN is entirely for-profit and run by individual media mogul owners and CEOs, what if this were a non-profit situation like the NCAA (for lack of a less morally depraved analogy) and the media outlet were run by an association representing all of its member institutions.

    If 100,000 people tune into a concert instead of just 3,000 sitting and watching in a concert hall, that’s certainly a win. But if the advertising/sponsorship dollars for that broadcast get returned to the greater institution of classical music instead of to billionaire execs, that sounds like an absolute triumph.

    And if we take a look around, I think we can all spot signs that this might work. The fact that 4th of July and Memorial Day orchestral performances are still around. Summer pops concerts. The popularity of shows like So You Think You Can Dance, and performances like Susan Boyle’s and Paul Potts’ (124 million YouTube views?!). Seriously, we live in a world with greaser hair cuts, handlebar mustaches, steam punk, and Antique Roadshow. Everything is hip or interesting or worthwhile to *someone*, and I think classical music—if the institutions representing it can continue to evolve and adapt—is too substantial and exciting and fascinating *not* to endure.

    Reply
  5. James Bee

    I think it’s a good fairy tale, but the starting point is on the opposite way. Sports TV is based on the fact that the amount of people who’d like to see the match but the arena or stadium’s capacity is too limited. More people vs less seats. That’s how TV steps in. Classical music is in my opinion quite opposite. There’re obviously more seats and less viewers. At least most cities are like this. Maybe big cultural cities like London or Paris are not the same, but most places there’s just not so many people would spend all days watching that.

    The other problem is the effect people would get through their equipment when watching such live shows. Obviously there will be both some loss of effects, but music gets worse through transmission. That’s also a reason why there will never be such a media like ESPN about classical music.

    Reply
    1. Kenneth D. Froelich Post author

      The transmission issue is quickly improving due to technology – sound quality is light years ahead of what is was just a decade ago, allowing for much higher fidelity broadcasts, assuming the listener has the proper setup (granted – a big assumption).

      I recognize my idea is a “fairy tale,” and that it probably won’t happen – however, I also think that our classical music society needs to do more outside-of-the-box thinking in order to generate more classical music viewers, whether in the theater, through broadcast media, or through other means. For me, the bigger issue here is trying to make an argument that there are untested ways to develop larger classical music audiences. I’m glad to see that this blog is generating some thoughts on the matter, as that really is the point. If we come up with enough ideas, maybe one of them will actually work! :)

      Reply
  6. Ron Davis

    Brilliant.

    As you and your commenters make clear, there are financial and other challenges. But people will engage with music that is well-packaged and recommended to them.

    One request: can we include jazz (the format of music in which I work) in the programming?

    Reply
  7. JOSE SEREBRIER

    Completeley in agreement. Live web casts are another possibility as well, like the Detroit Symphony has been doing so successfully, and of course the Berlin Philharmonic.

    Reply
  8. lawrencedillon

    ESPN didn’t get its start because someone wanted to get more people interested in watching professional volleyball. What you need is a parent station that covers all music equally, including but not just Classical: pop, world, jazz, etc. Then you have spinoff stations that focus on one or another genre.

    The model would be BMI and ASCAP, institutions that serve contemporary composers of all stripes. Could they create stations? Probably not, but that’s where I’d start.

    The problem is that pop music works so well on commercial television, and Classical music, with its endlessly varied durations, doesn’t.

    Reply
  9. Travis Cottle

    Bravo.

    The implementation of this sounds like a very tedious and costly task. Seeing that ESPN has major locations in Los Angles, New York, Dallas, Boston, and Chicago; would this be your ideal line up for American audiences?

    Seeing that PBS has experience in broadcasting classical performances, how would this station separate itself from the competition of PBS and streaming orchestras?

    The other question would have to be how does the organization make its money? I know this sounds like a dumb question, but with the majority of orchestras and symphonies struggling to make ends meet, how does one collect an income from tight budgeted non-profit organizations?

    Reply
  10. Matthew

    Stations like this exist already in Europe (where this silly industry was basically founded). I think a television station that featured “performance art” (not just classical music) would be too challenging to maintain in a society that spends nearly 75% of their time on a smart phone.
    Forget about the financials… everyone can talk about the ‘what ifs’ until they turn blue in the face; the industry will never get there. Maybe, if the industry as a whole wasn’t driven purely by philanthropic morals, just maybe this could work. Here’s the “cold hard facts” (for you SportsCenter fanatics) our reality is that advertising is what made professional sports what it is today, not the performances. Until a branding mogul named Michael Jordan came along, professional sports were fairly meager (financially speaking). In fact, ESPN made their mark by pushing collegiate sports into the mainstream, not the pros.
    You kid about creating a ‘real world’ for the BSO (I wouldn’t watch that). If you make one about New World Symphony, I would! Take the lead from ESPN… push the younger thriving players who desperately seek acceptance; they work their asses off and party like rock stars. In fact, as a NWS alum, we even jokingly discussed it during our fellowship. That would have been incredibly entertaining, and would have put the Jersey Shore to shame.
    End all, until you come up with a business plan that is truly profitable (one that doesn’t rely on donations) we will not have a glorified ESPN for the performing arts. Why don’t you try to find the money in advertising, but then again, what fortune 500 company do you know of that finds spending money on beta TV networks a ‘wise’ business decision?

    Reply
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  12. Julie Fiore

    It’s interesting that Ovation TV hasn’t been mentioned. The performing arts channel launched a successful “save us!” campaign recently after being pulled from virtually every cable service provider. It’s back on the dial — at least, where I live — but whether it continues to be might be a simple case of Too. Many. Choices.

    Reply
  13. Jeff Winslow

    “PBS does a great job of providing a multitude of concerts for viewing.” You’ve got to be kidding. What affiliate is in your area?

    This is a bit unfair since they did air a short radio slot on Cascadia Composers in advance of our April concert, but judging by air time and theme music on locally produced shows, Oregon Public Broadcasting seems to think “music” necessarily involves a guitar, a microphone, and as few accidentals as possible. Major performances, the few they do air, invariably are in the least prime times possible. Sunday at 2AM seems to be a favored slot. However I suppose none of this is PBS’ fault.

    Reply
  14. Nicole Warner

    Arte is a fantastic French/German station that does this. They have performances of classical music, ballet, artist interviews, etc. and they also show films.

    Speaking of money, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Start with items that require lower fees and mix it up with larger-ticket items. It must be fresh, accessible, and attractive.

    And always remember that people who are exposed to classical music like classical music. ;)

    Reply
  15. Ned McGowan

    On the local digital TV packet here in Amsterdam, the Netherlands we have two classical and one jazz music channels (Brava, Mezzo, Djazz), which play videos from live concerts, opera’s, documentaries, etc… the whole day. Granted not too many new music concerts are shown and they don’t follow current events and premieres very well, but being able to regularly see great orchestras, pianists, string quartets, for example, is a fantastic way to have constant contact with the canon.

    Reply

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