No choice

PBS forgets its mission statement by omitting classical performances

The following is an indictment of PBS television. And it's long overdue.

During a recent PBS pledge drive, when the network trots out its most tempting fare, I discovered something called the James Last Orchestra. They were hard to miss — like many pledge drive shows, their concert seemed to be broadcast twice daily. In case you were vacationing overseas and missed it, James Last is a jovial Rip Taylor look-alike whose orchestra combines the worst of "Hooked On Classics" with Lawrence Welk-on-synthesizers. The other music biggie for this pledge drive was a 13-year-old German boy who screeched favorites like "Danny Boy" in an ear-splitting soprano that knew no dynamics other than fortissimo.

Lately — and I mean for several years now — the only classical music programs on PBS feature either prepubescent child singers or the Three Tenors. This is not pandering — this is Pampering, and I mean the leak-proof Procter & Gamble kind. Oh, we do have an occasional "Live From the Met" (when it's not pre-empted — more about that later). We also have "Evening At Pops," but frankly, I'm speaking about more accomplished fare.

There was a time when local groups such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the former Savoyards Musical Theatre Company were given air-time. We saw broadcasts from Symphony Hall and Chastain Park — we even saw "The Mikado" with local performers. Now we rarely see anyone's orchestra (except for James Last's).

Of course, these things cost money to broadcast. We're all too aware of this — which is why we put up with those pledge-drives-from-hell. But do we have to spend that money — donated by the public — on another amphitheater concert featuring the Three Tenors singing pop standards in pidgin English, or European child singers? Can we not have regular opera, recital and symphonic broadcasts — both local and national — that probably would cost less to run? Does PBS really believe these things have no following?

Since nearly every arts organization nowadays carries a mission statement, I've tried to examine what the station's must be. PBS once was assumed to be an alternative to network television — in other words, an alternative to mainstream pop culture. But in soliciting new (and younger) members, PBS now makes the mistake of embracing pop culture. Elton John concerts can be seen as readily on PBS as on CBS. The result is that, for every blockbuster mega-star rock/pop concert on PBS (which the major networks also would present, and do) we've lost one more chance to see a performance of classical music, of operas and symphonic works and recitals — performances that the major networks would never broadcast, but PBS could, and used to.

Check out the local listings for PBA-30. There are shows ranging from "Dogs With Jobs" to "Regina's Vegetarian Table." But there is not one single program remotely connected to classical music or opera. If it were merely a matter of eclectic musical programming, I would shut up and be grateful. But as far as classical music is concerned, the choice is no longer there.

When I mentioned this to my friend Bruce, a local musician who spent some formative years in Chicago, he suggested I check that city's broadcast schedule as well (for the record, Bruce remembers long-past-and-lamented PBS gems like "Previn at the Pittsburgh"). So I checked out the New York and Chicago Public Broadcasting television schedules — and the programming is pretty much the same. No classical music or opera programs, on either the local or national level, are listed. Chicago does offer a show called "World of Abnormal Psychiatry," but there's no "World of Opera" — I suppose opera doesn't have the mass appeal as that of abnormal psychiatry.

According to Current, a magazine devoted to public broadcasting, concern has been expressed by the network's hierarchy over falling donations and ineffectual pledge drives. No wonder. When our local Atlanta affiliate decided to pre-empt a "Live From the Met" performance of "Tristan and Isolde" to accommodate their fund raising, they were flying in the face of what that fund raising is supposed to be about. And this dumbing-down of the network gets downright insulting during pledge drives, when perky PBS program directors insist they're providing the intelligent alternative. To what, "Wheel of Fortune"?

In the meantime, here in Atlanta we can always watch "Dogs With Jobs." By the next pledge drive, they'll probably be singing.??