Do ratings, commercials and the fine music mix?
The TV viewers among American music lovers are humming a happy tune this week. On Wednesday (Jan. 9) NBC aired "Live From Studio 8H" with Zubin Mehta and his New York Philharmonic, featuring soloists Leontyne Price and Itzhak Perlman.On monday (Jan. 14), PBS aired "Live From Lincoln Center," again Mr. Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, this time featuring tenor Luciano Pavarotti.Skip to next paragraph
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Both concerts were live -- "8H" a presentation staged especially for TV; "Lincoln Center" a special benefit performance at Avery Fisher Hall staged for its auditorium audience but also televised for TV viewers.
It made a big difference.
I saw the "8H" concert on my home TV set; I attended the "Lincoln Center" concert, sitting in a good seat for part of it, watching on a TV monitor for another part.
First, the "Live From 8H" program. NBC, in the tradition of its Toscanini NBC Symphony days of glory, has redesigned the old studio (now also used for "Saturday Night Live" by the way) . . . garishly.
Lots of plastic fixtures and a raised seating section that turns the orchestra area into a kind of bullring. The concert was simulcast on certain FM radio stations in some areas, so it was possible to receive high fidelity sound, a great improvement over the tinny sound available with only standard TV speakers.As expected, the music was superb (if a bit on the frothy side -- I will leave more detailed comments on that to the music critics). However, the camera work was also superb, with six cameras able to circle, hover, and sway as the director (and Mr. Mehta) demanded, without regard for a paying Symphony Hall audience (it was a freebie for the 8H audience). The rhythms and tempo of the music had been carefully plotted and the result was exciting.
Not so exciting were the rampant commercial interruptions -- the two major sponsors presented more or less acceptable institutional-type ads, but there seemed to be a continuous flow of 30-second spot commercials interspersed throughout the evening, intrusively interfering spersed throughout the evening, intrusively interfering with the feeling of concert. It was disappointing that the powers that be at NBC, supposedly committed to bringing "cultural" programming back to network TV, could not for 90 minutes control their own commercial mechanism.
"Live from Studio 8H" was a kind of high-brow variety show misquerading as a concert. Scheduled against "Charlie's Angels," "Vegas," and other mass-audience- oriented tidbits, it garnered a 5.9 Nielsen rating with 9 percent of the audience, placing it 64th out of 64 shows rated that week. NBC claims it is proud of reaching around 10 million people and insists it never expected high competitive ratings.
"Live From Lincoln Center," on the other hand, reached one of its largest audience ever -- early reports for New York indicate a 4.75 rating and a 7.3 percent share. This indicates close to the same audience that NBC garnered -- for PBS, a triumph.
The concert itself was a triumph. With eight cameras (mostly immobile because of the auditorium situation), the TV show still managed to bring the feel of concert to the TV audiences.
Filled with revealing closeups of the infectious smiles of Pavarotti, the animated conducting choreography of Mehta and, as a surprise the voice (yes, voice) of Itzhak Perlman (who also played the violin).
As a matter of the audience I felt totally involved in the joy of the performance -- the warmth that emanated from the performers, the enthusiasm of the musicians, the excitement of the audience itself turned the also slightly frothy concert into an unforgettable experience in group dynamics. It was an old-fashioned love-in. Some of that was communicated on camera -- but the truth is "you really had to be there."
So, it may very well be that TV is going to have devise its own new format for classical music. "Studio 8H," one hopes, is only the beginning. Televised concert-hall performances a la PBS are another acceptable form -- at least they make viewers surrogate concert-goers.But perhaps some amalgam of both forms may eventually be the answer.
Meantime, with repeats, probably 30 million TV viewers in one week have been experiencing the thrill of watching and hearing a troupe of musical geniuses doing what they do best -- making superb music.
(A note of interest to Pavarotti devotees: Six half-hour master classes with Luciano Pavarotti, taped versions of his lessons with young Juilliard student singers, start airing Jan. 19 on PBS [check local listings for premiere and repeats]. Based on viewing of the first, I found it a unique opportunity to acquire more insight into how this acclaimed tenor thinks, works, interreacts. Predictably, his thorough enjoyment of life comes through even in the classroom situation.) Zubin Mehta