In its battle for federal funding, PBS has clung to its educational mission and stressed a renewed commitment to arts coverage, which gets increasingly short shrift not only on television but in the pages of newspapers.
This weekend, WNET in New York will launch SundayArts, a regular program dedicated to the visual and performing arts in the cultural Mecca that is New York City.
The first installment, to air at noon March 23, includes segments on exhibits at the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York and New York City Opera’s iconoclastic incoming director, Gerard Mortier, who will take over in 2009 and who has managed to upend the staid opera world with modernist interpretations of classics that feature sex, drugs and, in the case of Mozart’s Zauberflöte, a stage festooned with air mattresses.
SundayArts includes a companion Web site where users can e-mail questions and comments directly to the artists and organizations profiled.
“There are 500 channels on television, but very few of them that have arts and culture,” WNET president and CEO Neal Shapiro said.
Indeed, cable networks including Bravo and A&E Network have migrated drastically from their original mission as high-minded cultural respites and now serve up a steady diet of reality programming.
“As successful as things like [Bravo’s] Top Chef and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are, they are not about arts and culture,” Shapiro said.
A recent piece in The New York Times questioning PBS’ relevancy spurred an outpouring of support for public television from readers and luminaries including documentarian Ken Burns and National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern.
The article, Shapiro added, “revealed the depth of support that there is for PBS.”
At the federal level, however, support is decidedly lacking.
The Bush administration has made repeated efforts to slash funding for public broadcasting despite the relatively small amount of the outlay -- $1 per person, per year. The administration proposed cutting PBS’ 2009-10 funding by more than 50%.
“The [New York Times] article did not do justice to the amount of innovation that has taken place at PBS, especially at the station level,” Shapiro said, citing WNET’s recent broadcast of the New York Philharmonic’s historic concert in North Korea and the reinvention of its Saturday movie night as an interactive destination for aspiring independent filmmakers.
Shapiro hopes such innovations, coupled with a clear commitment to arts programming, will inspire more philanthropists to provide private funding that has become critical to the health of public broadcasting in the face of the Bush administration's decidedly inhospitable view.
“Everybody, whether you’re PBS or not, has to say, ‘How do I find my place in this shifting landscape?’” Shapiro said. “Even PBS, which is an institution, cannot sit on its heels and say, ‘We’re going to keep doing things the same way.’”