Singing (badly) for its supper

Excellence bores its viewers, PBS finds, but schlock has become music to fund-raisers' ears.

June 27, 1999|By STEVE METCALF | STEVE METCALF,HARTFORD COURANT

The tune is familiar -- it's the one now known throughout the civilized world as "Hello Mudduh, Hello Faddah." But the words, sung by a reedy, painfully earnest male voice, are new:

People always try to please you,

People always hug and squeeze you,

When you're little, life's exciting,

So the thought of growing up becomes inviting."

At first blush, it sounds like a bad joke, or somebody's wicked little parody. In fact, it's a selection from the best-selling CD of one Helmut Lotti, an alarmingly sincere Flemish tenor, former Elvis impersonator and one of the many musical underachievers who have become popular in recent times on public television.

As PBS struggles for ratings and dollars, the network increasingly is becoming home to the sort of schlocky musical acts that it was created to provide respite from.

Public television, of course, always has been associated with, and to a great extent defined by, its musical programming -- from "Live From Lincoln Center" and the Metropolitan Opera to the pleasingly eclectic "Great Performances" series and other worthies.

But many of PBS' new wave of musical acts are, to put it gently, from a less exalted tradition. A short list would include:

* The excitable keyboard player and New Age musical evangelist known as Yanni.

* The flamboyantly costumed Dutch violinist and orchestra leader Andre Rieu.

* The likable but stylistically overreaching Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

* The breathtakingly talent- free piano noodler John Tesh, whose precise musical genre has resisted identification.

In a different but related category would be the late bandleader Lawrence Welk, whose risible old cornball shows are in regular circulation at many PBS stations.

To this list must be added Lotti, a smiling, slightly androgynous singer who, in his blend of frantic eagerness and utter lack of personal irony, will remind many people of a young Liberace.

What can PBS possibly be thinking with such programming? What it is mainly thinking about, of course, is money.

These artists primarily, although not exclusively, are served up during pledge drives, those interruptions three or four times a year when regular programming gives way to a full-court press for dollars. And Yanni, Rieu, Lotti et al. bring in heaps of money.

Doing what works

"There is a following out there, and a definitive following," says Zvi Shoubin, head of programming for Maryland Public Television, noting such shows bring in high ratings and, during pledge breaks, considerable amounts of money.

"I don't find that a lessening of our mission," Shoubin adds. "It helps to broaden our base and expose the PBS mission to people who are perhaps unaware of what we are doing."

Not that PBS executives necessarily like this stuff. One concedes that Lotti "makes his skin crawl." Another says he regards a lot of the music pledge programs as "dreck." But, as in the wider world, dreck sells, and sells briskly.

The question is, might the short-term gains from these performers be coming at the expense of the long-term integrity of the PBS nameplate?

Some of the more contemplative of the public television moguls -- both at the network and station level -- are beginning to realize their dilemma.

"I'm exceedingly uncomfortable and often saddened by the fact that in order to bring in dollars we sometimes stray from the mission of public television, which is excellence and education," says John Kerr, the on-air fund-raiser and development director at WGBH in Boston. "The dramatic question here is, are we unconsciously digging our own grave with this kind of programming?"

Already certain core PBS supporters, including big-gift donors, have begun to make noises about withdrawing support.

Such donors will not be pleased, then, to learn that some local stations (MPT not among them) -- have begun to drop the "serious" music shows such as the Met opera broadcasts because they believe they can draw larger audiences with less "elitist" shows. The situation has a desperate feel, and it's not likely to get better any time soon.

"You have to remember that PBS is hemmed in by severe financial constraints," says Bob Goldfarb, a veteran music and media consultant in New York.

"In particular, the member stations have an immense additional financial obligation because they all have to be thinking about new studio and transmission equipment to allow them to get into digital technology. Also, many are feeling the effects of increasing competition from cable television. So PBS today is not always in a position to make abstract judgments about quality."

To complicate matters, the fact that these artists appear on PBS is creating confusion about their artistic standing and, by extension, about the whole question of whether it's possible anymore to speak of such a thing as "good" music. Fans of Tesh and Rieu assume, understandably, that their musical heroes enjoy the imprimatur of PBS.

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