Saturday, August 07, 2010

PBS and classical music

During my illness and convalescence I've been watching more TV than usual, and something about PBS programming's effect on overall programming has struck me. Back when government broadcasting began in the late 60s, the promise was that it would bring the kind of highbrow and intellectual broadcasting that network TV, because of the necessity of appealing to a mass audience, would never be able to justify commercially. So if you wanted, as I always have, classical music and opera on TV, the government would just have to provide it.

It strikes me now, however, that there was more classical music and high-toned stuff on network TV in the 50s and early 60s than there is on PBS now. Back then the Firestone Hour offered classical music weekly, and most variety shows featured classical players -- a Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Artur Rubenstein or Earl Wild or Oscar Levant, or a Metropolitan Opera singer -- Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker were on fairly often. The networks would even broadcast the occasional opera, and not just "Ahmal and the Night Visitors." There was quality drama as well. Not saying it was a Golden Age, but there was quality stuff on TV. Of course the '50s were a time of middlebrow status anxiety as many in postwar America wanted to demonstrate that they were not only succeeding they had taste, so there was impetus for classical stuff on TV.

Now, except for those stations that show Classic Arts Showcase (put together privately and offered free of charge) between midnight and 4:00 a few nights a week, there's just not much classical music on PBS. You can tell the audience they're trying to serve by the pledge drives, which may feature a crossover star like Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli, but are more likely to be doo-woop or soul music or fifties classics or something distinctly on the pop end of things. That seems to be what the aging baby boomer eager to be flattered as above-average demographic that seems to be the most reliable donors seems to respond to.

In a way it's kinda nice that PBS stations are responding to the market for their services. But if they are to exist as entities that respond to the market, where's the rationale for giving them tax money? The sad thing is that the existence of PBS, whether it has fulfilled its promise or not, relieves network broadcasters of any felt obligation to provide anything highbrow.

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