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The culture clash

Classier programming a tough sell in MTV-driven world

Reality fare is transforming TV, and even the world of highbrow arts and cultural programs has felt the effect. Pubcasters around the world feel pressure to be more ratings driven and pay less heed to their institutional mandates.

Performance and concerts dominate the genre. Pop culture is hot, fine arts are not. Ideas are developed over a long period and financed from multiple sources; record labels are a key part of this mix. Star power gets the attention.

Archaic funding concepts hamstring the educational market as academic libraries have limited coin to invest in DVDs and videos. All in all, it would be a depressing picture were it not for the passion of the people committed to fighting for these programs.

Industry veteran Reiner Moritz, principal in the distribber Marketplace and a documentary filmmaker, believes that it’s extremely difficult to draw auds for any arts concept — be it a TV spesh or museum visit.

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“We live in a materialistic world where anything spiritual is not in the foreground,” says Moritz, who chides pubcasters for relegating everything that is not mass culture to cable.

He adds that it’s a vicious circle of diminishing expectations.

“If museum exhibits in Paris and New York can draw 800,000 people, why is it so hard to get an audience for these programs? People in England expect to see a Royal Opera production on TV.”

As a positive example he singles out ITV’s “South Bank,” featuring expensive, culturally oriented docs that cover a range of subjects.

” ‘South Bank’ had a very successful run on ITV and elsewhere around the world but not in North America. We have to motivate viewers to come back to television,” Moritz says. “Jazz is dead. People are afraid it won’t get ratings. Opera and rock, surprisingly, suffer in the ratings, too.”

Richard Lorber, a principal in Lorber Media, says part of the challenge is to provide contextual material to translate what is a static medium to the TV screen.

Lorber, formerly an art history professor, sees the issue as one of scale. “You never get the same impact from viewing a work of art on a small screen,” says Lorber.

He adds that the explosion of DVD might help break the trend.

“It’s the optimal format because it offers the possibility of interactive components, greatly enhanced storage capacity and the ability to create a context.”

While the popularity of opera and ballet programs are in decline, Lorber believes big names can help turn the tide. “Everything changes if you do a biodoc that features a smattering of performances, like ‘The Secret Life of Pavarotti.’ ”

Adds Denis Hedlund, CEO of film and DVD distrib Kultur: “The problem with performing arts is the lack of a newly anointed star tenor and star ballet dancer. We always have to fight to get space on the shelf.”

“The goal is to make economically viable landmark and event programming. You want to make your program the definitive program on the subject,” says Krysanne Katsoolis, of Cactusthree, a venture specializing in co-productions. It recently brokered co-production funding for the doc “The History of Punk.”

Margaret Smillow, head of culture and arts docs at WNET — a PBS station famous for its “Great Performances” and “American Masters” series — says her first line of attack is to get a commitment for the program on the national PBS sked. If that doesn’t work, she gets commitments from individual stations.

Smillow says programs are often supported by international co-productions since coin can be tough to come by for arts programming. Then, once a show is completed, finding a station for broadcast isn’t an easy feat either.

But, Smillow’s not one to give up the fight. “We are committed to diversity over a range of performance arts,” she says.

Jan Younghusband , commissioning editor for the arts at U.K.’s Channel 4, says it takes two years to bring an idea to the TV screen, and some bigger projects take longer. There are no arts slots currently on her schedule.

That being said, Younghusband accepts proposals throughout the year. “If the schedule is full, it’s difficult to bring in good new ideas,” she says. “We work with the strength of the individual idea. It’s not about the money spent.”

Dominic Saville, prexy of U.K. distrib 3DD Entertainment, believes arts programming can make a comeback if the genre opens itself to new technologies.

“The key is to be cutting edge and examine an area that people are not familiar with.”