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PBS mantra: You gotta have art

But web's focus has widened

Ever since A&E dropped the “A” from its lineup in favor of reality shows like “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” arts aficionados, while not exactly on a starvation diet, have had to sustain themselves with fare from PBS.

The good news is that the amount of arts programming on PBS has remained steady — about 20% of total programming and budget — over the past five years, according to Jacoba Atlas, PBS’ senior VP for programming.

Margaret Drain, VP of national programming for WGBH, the public TV station in Boston, says, “PBS is seizing on the high ground because cable networks have abandoned the arts audience.”

PBS can continue to revel in series like “Masterpiece Theater” and “Great Performances,” says Drain, because “public TV is not in it for the money. Our shows are not interrupted by commercials. For cable networks, it’s all about the money.”

But the heyday of PBS arts-casting is long gone, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse U.

“Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, PBS aired all of Shakespeare,” Thompson recalls. “There were all sorts of arts programs on, an absolute treasure trove.” PBS still does “a fair amount,” he adds, “but this is no golden age of arts blossoming on television.”

PBS’ Atlas says that to some extent, the net is dependent on British production companies Granada and BBC, major fonts of literary programming.

“For a while, they turned away from the literature canon,” she says. “But they’ve recently come back, with ‘Bleak House,’ ” which aired on PBS and just won a Peabody Award.

The really bad news, however, is that, depending on whom you’re talking to, there may be less arts than meets the eye on PBS these days.

“Science, children’s programming, arts and docs are what make PBS distinct,” says Gary Edgerton, an Old Dominion U. communications professor who tracks culture. “Arts coverage isn’t slipping at PBS, but it’s just a modest part of programming.”

“Even if you think we do too much pop culture, you can still see ‘Swan Lake’ or hear Mozart,” says Atlas, who notes that “Great Performances” and “Masterpiece Theater” are still running strong after more than 30 years. “Our idea of ‘arts’ runs the gamut. Whether it’s Yo-Yo Ma on cello or Eric Clapton on guitar, it’s all part of our cultural landscape.”

(John Dempsey in New York contributed to this report.)