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Emmys nominees: Classic music noms are PBS’ time to shine

Public TV proud of programs both 'educational and entertaining'

It’s not one of the glamour categories, and it won’t even be presented during the televised awards Sept. 16, but the Emmy for outstanding classical music/dance program gets plenty of attention among culture mavens and it’s a rare moment for public TV to shine.

In fact, all five of this year’s nominees aired on PBS: “American Dream: Andrea Bocelli’s Statue of Liberty Concert,” “Charlotte Church: Live From Jerusalem,” “Jazz at Lincoln Center: When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Great Performances: La Traviata From Paris” and “The Three Tenors Christmas.”

Three feature popular opera singers (Bocelli, Church and the familiar tenor triumvirate of Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti), one has Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra celebrating the music of Louis Armstrong, and one is a complex production of Verdi’s opera that was performed live on location in Paris.

All 12,000 Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members choose the nominees; the winner will be selected by a panel of about 100.

“This is a good balance between traditional classical and more popular, accessible artists,” says Glenn DuBose, senior director for drama, performance and arts at PBS, who says the pubcaster is attempting to lose the elitist tag that’s dogged its musical fare by looking for fresh ways to showcase classical talent.

“We want programs that will appeal to a lot of people, not just a very specific group.”

David Horn, who has won two Emmys as producer of PBS’ long-running “Great Performances,” concedes that ratings for straight classical concert shows have dwindled in recent years. He cites several reasons including a parallel decline in general interest in classical music, a lack of true classical superstars on the order of a Bernstein or Horowitz and the expensive nature of event programming like “La Traviata.”

“What we always try to do is make it more educational and entertaining at the same time, try to illuminate what’s going on,” says Horn, who is choosy about the look and content of every program. “I loved the Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Tristan.’ Should that be a television show? I’m not so sure. When you have two people sitting on a bench in silhouette for 45 minutes, that’s tough television to take.”

Six-time Emmy winner Peter Gelb, who produced the acclaimed Wagner “Ring” cycle for PBS in 1990 and who now runs the Sony Classical label, is blunt about the once-popular symphony concert show.

“They never made good television and they never will,” he says. “The more successful arts programs on TV, from a purely aesthetic point of view, are those that really are designed for the camera. There are so many wonderful programs on television that, if you’re going to make a musical program, it has to be competitive from a visual perspective.”

Financial considerations also loom large.

“Public television and the cable networks are never going to foot the bill for the kind of production value that goes into these programs. If anything, they will pay a small portion or a percentage of it,” says Gelb.

Sony Classical will back shows that promote its artists or projects that have strong sales potential as albums (such as a “West Side Story” concert in New York’s Central Park or a Vangelis work performed among Athens’ ancient Greek ruins, both of which will air on PBS next season).

So what classical programming tends to get nominated, and to win the Emmy? That’s easy, says nine-time winning producer John Goberman (“Live From Lincoln Center”).

“The shows that people enjoyed, more than the ones that are esoteric. It’s not difficult. You shouldn’t put something on television that you can’t sell tickets to.”

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