Where Is the Arts Programming on PBS?

Why can't PBS be reorganized? Why can't there be a mix of local and national programming? Why can't the parent organization determine the best in American arts and fund its broadcast across the nation?
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One of the questions I am always asked when I teach abroad is why there are not more performances by American arts organizations available on television. In other developed nations, the great arts organizations are seen regularly on television.

There are two answers to this question. The first is the expense of filming, especially the extra wages demanded by performers and stage hands. The cost for filming one opera or ballet can exceed one million dollars, an amount that simply cannot be recouped with DVD sales after broadcast. When I ran the Royal Opera House we made a landmark deal with the artists that paid them a modest annual fee for a substantial amount of filming by the BBC. I hope we can make similar deals here in the United States.

The second reason, however, has to do with the unique nature of America's public television organization.

PBS is a vital institution. It has provided important educational, artistic, and news programming for decades. But PBS is not a network like CBS or ABC. It is a cooperative of local stations. Most programming is created by one local station and then distributed to other local stations.

While local input and content is important, this means that major, expensive programs, like arts programming and dramatic series, come only from stations that can afford to create this programming, meaning those with strong fundraising operations. And far too few of the local stations do have strong fundraising operations. This is why so many of the arts programs we do see emanate from New York City, whose WNET is one of the most prominent stations in the television service.

There is so much wonderful art being produced across the nation, but this work is not available often enough on national television. I would like to see the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company or the St. Louis Opera or Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis -- important arts organizations doing interesting work -- featured on national public television. But the decision is left to the local stations, most without the resources to mount important arts programming.

Why can't PBS be reorganized? Why can't there be a mix of local and national programming? Why can't the parent organization determine the best in American arts and fund its broadcast across the nation? I have to believe that a national programming effort would be extremely attractive to major national funders, who are now approached primarily by regional stations.

And while the local stations might protest some loss of autonomy, if this change resulted in better programming, higher ratings and a larger contributions base to share, I have to believe that many of the stations would appreciate the change.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which annually provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the parent organization and to the local stations, has the clout to make this happen. Couldn't CPB dedicate some of its grant to PBS for programming of national importance?

Isn't it time for a discussion of the merits of a change in structure?