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.

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

The day after his "Live From Lincoln Center" performance, I chatted with conductor Zubin Mehta about both of his recent TV appearances as he prepared to dash over to Lincoln Center for his regular subscription concert. He had not been able to see either of the shows -- although he plans to view both of them on tape shortly.

"The '8H' show was never done for ratings," he insists. "NBC really wanted to do it for the sake of doing something good, cultural, positive. How could we ever hope to compete with 'Charlie's Angels?'

"If they had wanted ratings alone, they would have put on an Ed Sullivan-type show."

"The difference in the shows from the conductor's point of view?

"At PBS we just did our normal concert. We were not disturbed by the cameras. The contract with the musicians and PBS is such that the director merely looks into our rehearsals but we do not work together. Then, they just photograph the performance when it is given. It was different at NBC where the musicians were paid for two rehearsals, where everything we did was for the cameras. There the TV director was constantly talking to me, suggesting things. It was staged for the camera -- the studio audience had not paid so we didn't worry about cameras interfering. . . ."

Which does he like better?

"Well, from the TV audience standpoint, both are valid. It is nice to see the public applauding and feel their reactions on PBS. On the other hand, in the TV studio the camera angles are so much better -- there was a camera on a crane moving all around us continuously. You just can't do that in a concert hall.

"PBS can't be saluted enough for doing this pioneer work for the past seven years and I don't think they should stop. On the other hand, if all the commercial networks were to share the prime-time televising of cultural events in turn, thus everyone would lose the ratings equally, it might turn out very well. But I would still want both kinds of concerts."

Was maestro Mehta bothered by the commercials?

"As a matter of fact I haven't actually seen them yet; but don't forget that Toscanini also had commercials. If you want to reach a large audience, there are some sacrifices you have to make. Why this sudden snobbery in America where he live and breathe commercials? Why is it so disturbing that commercials come in the middle of music? Ideally, it would be nice if they could be eliminated. I'd prefer to see even the Superbowl without them. But commercials on TV are what we are growing up with here.

"The main effect of the commercials on my side of the concert was that they limited us to short pieces because we had to have so many commerical breaks during the 90 minutes.

"That never happens at Lincoln Center. The only thing I would change is that I would like to play longer pieces; the most difficult part of that concert was choosing a piece short enough for Perlman. There are no short violin pieces under 15 minutes if you play a serious violin.

"One thing NBC promised me: They would not play any kind of rock-and-roll music on the commercials. It would have been disturbing if, after Beethoven, there was rodk-and-roll for 30 seconds. The sponsor wanted a commercial after the last piece and before our final bow, so we had to make a break and then come back after the commercial and bow all over again. . . ."

Couldn't Zubin Mehta have refused?

"Listen -- those are the rules of commercial TV. You have to live with certain things. It's very easy to sit back and say I could have refused. But that's not the way the game is played there. I did refuse to play a 20-second piece, but I agreed to come out and bow again and Leontyne was given some flowers. . . ."

How have other musicians reacted to the NBC show?

"All the reaction I've had from them has been positive. My friend Isaac Stern tells me that it was shot well. For once they really got good camera angles. That's what we all fight against -- the sheer boredom of symphonic music on TV with stationary cameras. The music has an added dimension from the studio.

"But with both the concerts we reached so many millions of people. It would take years and years of touring to reach such large numbers without TV. This is only the start; let's hope it doesn't die out."

When NBC shows Mr. Mehta a tape of the show, will he promise to make certain they include the commercial interruption?

"I will insist," he laughs. "And maybe, next time I will ask to do the music for the commercial, too. Will that make them less objectionable?"

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