As Viewers Hunger for More Arts, TV Delivers a Full Plate

Networks are catering to growing demand for cultural programming

Could it be that Americans' taste in culture is becoming more sophisticated? Clear indications that Americans are developing high-brow rather than hot-dog taste comes from a medium formerly known as a "vast wasteland" - television.

With the advent of Ovation, a new all-arts cable network, and an ambitious plan at PBS to increase its programming budget within the next few years, the amount of cultural programming is increasing exponentially.

According to national surveys, the audience for quality arts programming is steadily growing. A 1996 TeleCommunications Inc. study, for example, found 60 percent of the public wants more television programming in science, technology, and culture.

Ovation president Harold E. Morse calls television "almost the ultimate pervasive factor in our lives, for better or worse." To make sure its influence is for the better, Dr. Morse founded The Learning Channel (TLC) in 1980 and Ovation in 1996. The time is ripe, he thinks, for serious content on the tube. "The political psychology of the country is changing. People are more interested in enduring themes and in beauty. They're more attuned now to the arts and want more."

J. Carter Brown, Ovation chairman and the former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, agrees that the arts have a potentially wide audience. He argues against "pigeonholing the arts as an elite taste. It's not just society matrons who like to go where their diamonds can be seen."

Mr. Brown sees social benefits from increased attention to the arts. "Culture has a great role to play in getting people to understand each other. It can make diversity into a plus rather than a minus."

Citing TLC's increase in subscribers from 1 million in 1980 to 15 million when Morse sold the network in 1991, Brown says, "Hal Morse proved that intelligent television could be commercially viable. There's a lot of dissatisfaction with how little family television is available and how television has degenerated into violence and prurience, with the bad driving out the good. The audience needs choice."

Ovation offers 20 hours of arts programming, seven days a week, with performances, profiles, and documentaries on music, dance, theater, literature, and visual arts. It's available on cable in less than 1 million homes in cities like Boston, New York, and Palo Alto, Calif. Projections point to 3 million subscribers by mid-1997 and 14 million by its third year.

As for television's potential as a medium for the arts, Brown says, "Its extraordinary strength is that it comes right there into the house. From my experience as a museum director, I know you have to take art to where the audience is."

Some analysts are skeptical about the public's desire for additional cultural programming. "This is an age of pop culture. The audience for high culture is not necessarily growing, and particularly younger viewers don't watch," says Elayne Rapping, professor of communications at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

Attracting younger viewers is all a question of presentation, according to Robert Fitzpatrick, school of the arts dean at New York's Columbia University. Although MTV-devoted youth may be the hardest sell, making programs "visually interesting, less pompous, and more relaxed," he says, could do the trick. "If we want to expand the audience for classical music, we have to conceptualize the nature of the event. No matter how brilliant an opera may be, simply panning a camera through the orchestra or audience for two hours doesn't do anything to expand the audience."

Brian G. Rose, author of "Television and the Performing Arts," a history of cultural programming published by Greenwood Press, is more pessimistic. "I give Ovation about a 25-percent chance of succeeding. If you look at the history of cable cultural channels, most have failed within a year."

Cable channels with a longer track record, like Arts & Entertainment and Bravo, have survived by scaling back on original arts programming, according to Mr. Rose. "A&E discovered very soon that you have to dilute high-cultural programming in order to reach a mass audience. A&E has become a semi-upscale, documentary and BBC-import channel," he says. Bravo is "mainly a film and BBC-pickup channel."

While appealing to a niche market is feasible in other media, such as magazine publishing, the high cost of producing original programming dooms this approach for television, Rose believes. "Culture is a very expensive proposition," he says.

One attribute in favor of narrow-range programming is that arts shows tend to appeal to educated, more affluent viewers. "If given proper support and time to grow, Ovation can carve a real niche," Dean Fitzpatrick, former president of the California Institute of the Arts and former president of Eurodisney, says. "Will it have the audience of 'Cheers' or a soap opera? No. But it will attract an audience with real purchasing power that's interesting to advertisers."

Resisting the pop tidal wave is PBS - the main outpost of culture on television - whose audience continues to grow. (Each month, more than 80 percent of the cumulative television audience tunes into PBS.) A loyal cadre of passionate arts buffs watch signature shows like "American Masters," "Great Performances," and "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre."

PBS broadcasts give "a serious platform on television for artists to do what they do. [It's] not just five minutes on Ed Sullivan," says Jac Venza, director of cultural and arts programming at WNET-New York.

Entrepreneurial plans are under way to expand original arts programming. "We have a very ambitious plan to grow our national programming budget by over 50 percent in the next four years," says Kathy Quattrone, PBS executive vice president, programming services. "We're interested in increasing domestic drama," she continues, rather than importing international (primarily British) productions. WGBH-Boston is developing three original scripts on subjects like Henry James's novel "The American" and a biography of Mark Twain and his wife, "Mark and Livy."

Another non-Eurocentric program is being developed by the doyenne of children's educational programming, Shari Lewis, and her puppet Lamb Chop. This fall, their new series will teach preschoolers the rudiments of music appreciation. A highly touted series on American art by Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, "American Visions," debuts May 28, followed in the fall by Sister Wendy's "The Story of Painting" series.

Rather than saturating the audience, exposure to such cultural programming creates, according to Randy Cohen, director of research and information at Americans for the Arts, "a more-more situation. The more people participate, the more they want to participate. TV networks can increase interest in this type of programming by making it available."

As for commercial networks and the arts, one show has consistently provided a forum for the arts: "CBS Sunday Morning," broadcast 9:30-11 a.m. (ET). In its 18th season, with fiercely devoted viewers, "Sunday Morning" has segments on artists as diverse as conductor Pierre Boulez, sculptor Martin Puryear, and actor/playwright Steve Martin.

A TV newsmagazine for the culturally literate, the show is known as the quality show on CBS. "We feel very strongly about what we do," says senior producer Marquita Pool-Eckert. "For us, it's a mission or a calling. We speak to the intelligence of our viewers."

According to "Sunday Morning" arts correspondent Eugenia Zukerman, "We allow the arts to speak for themselves without pandering or being pedantic." She believes the arts are "not for the elite but for the informed. There's a hunger for understanding and information, especially as the millennium approaches."

A common theme expressed by arts-on-TV advocates is its importance for American culture, to reverse its image as shallow, mass-market, formula-driven entertainment.

"Truly, we're defined by how we express ourselves," Ms. Zukerman says. "Through the arts, we express the deeper part of ourselves."

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