Who watches "live performance TV"? And who will pay for it?
New York — "Performance TV" means many different things to producers and viewers. In most cases such cable TV organizations as Home Box Office, Showtime, and the new CBS Cable mean live performance staged especially for TV audiences -- not staged for a live audience and simulataneously transmitted to a TV audience at home. But the tradition of live performance for TV in the past decade started with PBS in the form of "Live from Lincoln Center," which was staged for a live audience.
Are there still other directions left for performance TV?
To find the answer, I spent one morning recently with two of the men most responsible for the best of the "Live From Lincoln Center" programs as well as many other examples of performance television -- John Goberman, director of media development at Lincoln Center, and Kirk Browning, the man who has directed more live TV performances than any other person in television.
Isn't true that what TV audiences get is the director's version of live performance rather than actual live perfomances. Otherwise, why not just place the camera in the best seat in the house and allow the audience to find its own focus?
GOVERMAN: Certainly. But, given the size of most television screens, there's no way you could offer the viewer a choice of what to look at. A wide shot of the stage makes all the players so small on the screen that you can't really see anything.
Won't the advent of pay-TV result in the loss to free PBS of live performances?
GOBERMAN: No. As long as funding is available, there will always be public TV performances. After all, we have 3,000 performances a year here. We could do ten different broadcasts a night -- one for pay-TV, one for cable, one for PBS, and so on. There's not even any need for exclusivity or tiered (first pay-TV, then the lower-paying markets) viewing.
Has Goberman been approached by pay-TV or cable companies?
GOBERMAN: Oh, sure. 'Live from Lincoln Center' is just a title. There are hundreds of other programming concepts -- Lincoln Center is an unlimited resource. We could put together many other series that would be completely different and offer them to cable.
But the cable systems had better understand the magnitude of the dollars involved. They are not free public broadcasting. One of the interesting things that happens when these cultural pay channels start talking about programming is that they don't seem to realize that there is a vast different between what's good and bad. The audiences really react to performances that are good and doesn't care at all to watch the stuff that's not very good.
So the cultural channels had better be careful -- there is the temptation to put together a cultural channel very cheaply with not very good stuff. Staying power is very dependent upon having the best. 'Cultural' is an all-encompassing word that on the surface sounds homogeneous but it is really not at all. Not all 'cultural' programming is worth watching. There is a need for the best and less than that won't fly.
Will public television be able to pay the price for top artists?
GOBERMAN: PBS will be more dependent on what happens in cable in that it may be part of the sequential release of programs. Suppose PBS wants to make a program now. It goes to Exxon or Mobil and tries to sell them on the idea of the program. Now the process will be changed. What a producer will do soon is put together a deal with CBS videodiscs, Rockefeller Center TV pay cable, the BBC or some foreign producer like Polygram and then, with that money, he may also put together some public TV money.
So, remembering that this is all still theoretical, the program goes first on pay cable. Then it goes on videodiscs, then to European TV and finally to PBS. So, its appearance on public television will probably depend upon the existence of these other mechanisms out there that support cultural programming. Now, that may be hard for PBS to take because they want to think of themselves as producers. But they are not the producers anyway. They have very little to do with 'Live From Lincoln Center.' We get the money, we produce the program and then send it down the street [to the control trailer].
So, chances are that future 'Live from Lincoln Center' will first be on cable?
GOBERMAN: If our funding disappears, then we can't possibly be on public TV. If the funding continues and we sell, say, five shows to cable, there's no reason why we cannot do one for PBS. Another possibility is the show will go live on cable or pay-TV and then on public TV. The problem with that is that it would not be live on PBS and so it could not be called 'Live From Lincoln Center.' Live means live. I feel strongly about that.
When pay-TV goes to a pay-per-view system, with each household choosing whether or not to order the evening's concert, won't that mean that the quality of cultural programming will change to mass-oriented entertainment? How will pay systems be able to resist the potential of 50 million households each paying rather than Marilyn Horne, etc.?
GOBERMAN: No doubt about it. Those pay-per-view channels will be competing for a mass audience. The chances of there being a cultural program available on those channels on a regular basis is very slim. They will be looking for the maximum dollar per hour. There's nothing preventing NBC from putting on a ballet right now but they can make more money doing Bob Hope special.
A lot of people are thinking a terms of culture right now, but I think a lot of them will drop out. I think they will move into mass programming and only the best of the cultural programmers will survive. Whoever is in there for the best with a lot of money and for a long term, will make it.
Where do Lincoln Center and John Goberman stand in all this ?
Goberman: I'm a consultant for Rockfeller Center TV [the cable system which has just announced its first-choice agreement with BBC on all BBC products starting next year]. I'm hoping that the Lincoln Center-Rockfeller Center relationship will be one that provides a huge source of new programming. I've always been a great believer in pay-TV. In fact, 'Live From Lincoln Center' is basically a pay-TV idea, not a free public TV idea, It is a product created by the cultural institutions involved . . . transient, short-lived, taking advantage of TV because we are taking you to performances, not selling tapes.
The person who watches it should be the person who pays for it. Then you won't have the need for a third-party supporter -- an advertiser who's using the arts to get an audience for his product. So, pay cable has, for me, always been the way to go."
Oops, PBS viewers, there goes "Live from Lincoln Center." So much for an amazingly loyal audience on PBS. The aesthetics
Does veteran live-performance director Kirk Browning believe in the possibility of best-seat-in-the-house live performance on TV?
BROWNING: Who is to say that in the next five years we're not going to have the technology that will allow us to transmit a reasonably faithful representation of what the audience gets in the theater rather than the director's vision of what TV audiences want to see. Maybe someday soon people will have a room in their house with a wall-sized screen where they can sit and see it all just as it is played on stage. But there will always be some sort of psychic difference, a veil that is different from actually being at a live performance.
By moving the camera, doesn't the TV director sometimes change the creator's work? Aren't spacial relationships so important in ballet that following a performer upstage may upset the choreography?
BROWNING: Certainly. That's why I always try to work with a codirector who specializes in the discipline we are televising.
If we accomplish anything in the present form, we don't accomplish it in terms of the legitimacy of the work. We accomplish it in terms of the performance dynamic. If you have good performers, somebody like Pavarotti, you're getting a close-up of the performance that is making up for all that you are losing in terms of the relationship of that performer to the whole work. If it's a good enough performance, viewers are willing to forgo the total theatrical experience in exchange for it.
Many of the cable companies -- Showtime, for instance -- which promise Broadway productions seem to be switching to productions restaged for video. Why?
BROWNING: Of all the live performing arts, drama is the most difficult to televise. Ballet, opera, and concerts are easier. All of those have an audience somehow implicit in them. But, with a play, you forget that there is an audience there. They end up looking like badly lit studio performances unless you restage them. Directors are not trained to do this kind of translation. I'd be happy to spend the rest of my life doing nothing else but helping directors learn the techniques which I have been practicing for 30 years."
What would Kirk Browning like to do on TV that he hasn't already done?
BROWING: I'd love some day to lick the problem of doing poetry on television, but I still don't know how you do it. It's an interesting area, awfully parochial but it would fascinate me.
With so many millions of dollars granted by the National Endowments for wayout projects. It's a shame funding has never been provided for a master class in directing the arts for television with TV's master cultural director, Kirk Browning, as a teacher. But, as John Goberman commented to me when I speculated on that: "The reason is simple --grants go to those who are good at applying for grants. It's an art in itself."