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Fine Tuning

MPT Wrestles With the Question: Can Television and Art Get Along?

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 12/25/2002

Megan Carberry understands all too well television's high threshold for shit. It was early October. The TV show she works for--Maryland Public Television's flashy, feel-good arts journal ArtWorks This Week--was just eight months old. And after a few dozen episodes involving quilters, kids who play drums, and celebrities visiting with the latest bus-and-truck production, the show had already run through the long but shallow diapason of topics that television typically approaches when covering the arts. So Carberry considered the unthinkable: doing something mildly controversial.

As one of the show's two assistant producers, she was compiling a "package"--a video segment produced in the field--on the American Dime Museum, Baltimore's tribute to the institutionalized hype of sideshows, roadside curiosities, and closets of wonder. While editing, she plied through several minutes of footage, deciding what to highlight among the museum's spectacles. "And they have this jar with this thing in it, which they claim is," Carberry shrugs and lowers her tone, "Lincoln's last bowel movement."

It was as if, looking back now, the excrement held all the guilty temptations of a bottle of absinthe.

As a producer whose belief in the power of public broadcasting approaches the evangelical, Carberry carries a clear investment in ArtWorks' success; but it's a line of work, she says, in which your effectiveness can be difficult to track. Ratings have been low, though not disastrously so in public television terms. And after the program premiered as a weekly series last February, what little word-of-mouth Carberry had gotten was not very good. So the inducement to gauge her audience's response came down to whether she would let the lens linger on a bottle of purportedly historical shit.

"And I went back and forth for a long time about: Do I put it in or do I leave it out?" she says. "Finally, I thought I'd leave it in, so at least I'll get a nasty e-mail." Carberry throws her hands above her head. "Nothing! Either my viewers are way more sophisticated than I thought, or nobody's watching. I put a piece of shit on TV and nothing happened."

Not everyone at ArtWorks shares Carberry's taste for the provocative, but in a sense, they're all testing the waters these days. Since the show's debut last Valentine's Day, the seven person staff has been joined in a mission that seldom has been undertaken and very rarely has been done well--bringing meaningful arts coverage to television.

PBS has always held exclusive claim to being "the arts channel," of course, mainly because networks shrink from fine-arts programming as ratings poison. But even so, the marriage between public broadcasting and the arts has, at times, seemed a superficial one. By and large, public television has found the best success when it simply delivered the arts to its viewers, by broadcasting stage productions on shows like Great Performances or its long-lived Live from Lincoln Center. But ArtWorks is part of a trend--one MPT staffer called it a "fad"--that's been gaining strength at public television affiliates in larger markets since the late '90s. Like Artbeat at Chicago's WTTW and WNET's nationally syndicated Egg, ArtWorks is part of a renewed effort to canvass the arts, its personalities, and its events at a local level, rather than merely transmitting its images. And if ArtWorks This Week is any indication, this push opens up a couple of discussions as old as the medium itself, ranging from how producers can compellingly cover the arts, to whether anyone will watch it, and ultimately, if art and television can get along at all.

In ArtWorks' case, that discussion began to take place this fall, at a citywide level. Last October, around the time she had been mulling the virtues of Lincoln's would-be feces, Carberry sent out a blanket e-mail on ArtMob, the local Listserv that caters to Baltimore's arts community. In it, she acknowledged the bad buzz she'd heard after the show's premiere--namely that ArtWorks This Week was "fake, stiff, stuffy, Eurocentric, old school, dopey, condescending, and dead." Then came the plea. "We're coming up on our one year anniversary on the air," she said, "and I've got a burning question--are we wasting our time?"

Staffers broadly attribute the creation of ArtWorks to Connie Caplan, the chair of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, who in 2000 voiced official support for MPT's fledgling efforts to shore up its arts coverage. Originally conceived as a series of quarterly profiles, the concept took a turn when the first show to air under the ArtWorks brand--Jazz Reflections, hosted by Nate Howard--won a regional Emmy in 2001. Soon, a groundswell followed to turn ArtWorks into a weekly series. Ken Day, coming off a seven year stint with the homegrown series Maryland State of Mind, was appointed executive producer; five production staffers were drawn together (one has since been laid off, owing to an increasingly tight budget); and Howard was tapped to share the hosting duties with local broadcast mother-figure Rhea Feikin.

Nearly a year later, Day remains sanguine about the show's mission. "Our aim is to reach out to the art community of the region and find the most fascinating people and bring them to the public," he says. "Like the old cliché--the people are the arts."

He's also straightforward about what he sees as ArtWorks' firm place in the most traditional niche of cultural coverage: boosterism. "It's a promotional show," he says. "We're really out to promote the arts." Attempts by other shows at other stations to use television for criticism, analysis, or exploration of the issues in the arts, he explains, have been poorly received. As a result, his show adopts an air of civic advancement, and does it thoroughgoingly.

For this he largely has Feikin to thank, a local broadcast institution if ever there was one, who succeeds in setting ArtWorks' bolstering tone. A veteran of children's shows and pledge drives, Feikin brings a breathy, matronly supportiveness to the broadcast that seems equipped to dispel any cynicism. "We have some very special guests this week, special primarily because they're artists whose work appeals to young and old alike," she began in opening one October show--then she crinkled her nose and leaned forward--"and that appeals to us!" While interviewing her subjects--which lately have included Baltimore Symphony Orchestra maestro Yuri Temirkanov, former Sun columnist Gil Sandler, and Sesame Street's Elmo--she looks at them with the bearing of a politician's wife, smiling and nodding in endorsement. Howard, for his part, offers delivery that's burnished to a high polish, adding gloss to the show's sometimes hoary copy (he recently introduced the Latin American musicians of Cantare as "a tangy recipe of spice and salsa!").

This rallying tone is a common dialect in television arts coverage, but it's not the only approach the show can take, if it wants to hold onto its educated and challenge-hungry target audience. On one hand, as Carberry points out, the show's aim is--and should--be to expose local artwork to the broadest possible audience. On the other, however, ArtWorks can't afford to cover only the most banal and accessible work. And even more important, it can't appear to be dumbing down.

"There's two ways you can approach the show as a producer," she explains. "One is being like an armchair critic and making Joe Lunchpail understand why he should go see the show at the BMA. The other way to approach it is, Joe Lunchpail already knows why he should go see the show at the BMA, and you should get to ask the questions that are really interesting."

The key, it seems, is to do both, and she takes heart in the fact that the second approach may slowly be gaining ground. As an example, Carberry cites the upcoming retrospective of work by the German painter Gerhard Richter at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum. "I really pushed that," she says. "'We have to do the Gerhard Richter retrospective. Nobody's heard of Gerhard Richter. Everybody should have heard of Gerhard Richter.' So I pushed and pushed and pushed and finally we got it." Now, she says, it's just a matter of finding the best, middling sensibility to bring to the segment. "I can be either: 'Why would someone make a painting of a newspaper photo? Isn't that just copying?' or I could ask the curator the kinds of questions I've been itching to ask. But I always want to assume that the audience is more sophisticated than they're given credit. That's my push."

After Carberry sent out her e-mail plea last October, she received a tepid response, characteristically so for an industry in which you never hear from your audience unless the signal goes out or something goes horribly wrong on the air. One woman answered by saying the show should profile zydeco bands from Louisiana, because she books zydeco bands from Louisiana. Another respondent wasn't sure what show Carberry was talking about. Another still, who said she worked for a "city arts program," had never seen it but asked if ArtWorks could profile her latest project. And one well-wisher said, "any arts show is better than none."

On paper, reaction to ArtWorks seems just as vague. Carberry notes that on the Nielsen ratings scale--in which prime-time major network shows net ratings in the neighborhood of 25--the highest her show has climbed has been 1.7. Its lowest ebb was 0.4, "which means," as she puts it, "our families were watching."

But again, the numbers only make sense in context. Owing in part to PBS' strategy of attracting viewers who are bored by the mainstream, ArtWorks This Week has been placed in one of the most competitive ratings slots--Thursday at 8 p.m. As a result, its broadcast on Oct. 10, for example, put ArtWorks (which got a rating of 1.3 that night) directly opposite Monk on ABC (4.8), Survivor: Thailand on CBS (11.0) and Friends on NBC (16.6). But viewed within the continuum of public television broadcasts--where ratings aren't as prized as they are in commercial television--the show performs well. Typically, the only show that fared better on MPT than ArtWorks are the station's solidly popular children's shows, such as Arthur, Dragon Tales, and Barney and Friends.

In the end, all this ambiguity might simply be a necessary effect of the ArtWorks experiment. For her part, Carberry seems to accept it--at least in principle--as the cost of an odd project: using a medium as mundane as television to cover the loftiness of art. What ultimately convinces her that the project will work is her belief that, if it's going to work anywhere, it'll happen on the rarefied airwaves of public television--even if it means giving the viewers a literal crock of shit from time to time to keep things interesting.

"The idea that something so ludicrously utopian and impractical as public television can have survived for the past 30 years, that utopian idea really appeals to me," she says. "That's where I feel like, if I can be difficult in the service of something great, then I'm all about that."

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