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TV's great culture rush: high bids for highbrows

The big TV culture rush is on. Future observers of American television will probably look back on the early 1980s as the time when cable TV discovered the culture market -- and tried to capitalize it.

New "software" organizations are announcing their entrance into the market, stressing that they will be producing "quality" programming for their cable systems. The past few months have seen the formation or expansion of Bluebird (RCTV), Alpha (ABC/Warner-Amex), CBS Cable, Rainbow and Bravo, and the Black Entertainment Network, as well as such old-timers (one or two years old) as Showtime, Home Box Office, Cinamerica, and many more.

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Most of these organizations are proffering such cultural nuggets as The Peking Opera and "Look Back in Anger," as well as other classical music concerts , opera, dance, and theater. Name the cultural event and one or the other of the new services will claim to be just about ready to sign it up "exclusively." In this case, exclusively means the first in a series of "tiered" showings -- perhaps first theatrically, then on pay TV, then as a bonus on a regular cable system, then on commercial TV, and then on Public broadcasting, or any variation of this order.

Meantime, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is striking back at cable TV's cultural Johnny-come-latelies.

Perhaps spurred on by all of the recent pay-TV entries into the "quality" television programming field, which up to now has been practically the exclusive preserve of PBS, a long-dormant innovative cultural series was finally officially announced Dec. 22. "Playhouse" is a major new American drama series for public television, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a four-station consortium consisting of KCET in Los Angeles, WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York, and the South Carolina Educational TV Network.

"Playhouse" plans to air classic and contemporary works by John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, and other noted writers. Additional funding will be required from private sources and PBS stations not part of the consortium.

Robert Kotlowitz, vice-president of WNET's program development division, indicates that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that "Playhouse" may be underwritten by a pay-TV system; show there first, and aired later on PBS. "We are open to any reasonable financing suggestions," he explained. PBS, it is evident, must think in terms of survival, even if "tiered" programming would place them low on the totem pole in regard to order of airing.

According to Mr. Kotlowitz, PBS's successful airing of "Tinker, Tailor" seemed to benefit in the Los Angeles area from a previous airing there on a cable channel.

However, the big question in the minds of many TV observers is whether a mass market for "high culture" -- whether on public broadcasting, cable, or pay TV -- actually exists. Mobil's top TV culture expert, Herbert Schmertz, thinks it will not exist -- if at all -- until the end of the decade.

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"All these new programming companies making million-dollar commitments for symphony orchestras and operas may find they are out a lot of money before long, " he told the Monitor. "Will the people who are used to getting their cultural programming free on PBS be willing to pay $10 or more per month in the future?"

However, according to WNET's Kotlowitz, "I believe people will be willing to pay for such programming on an individual program basis, rather than by subscription to a whole system."

Already there is talk that "Live From Lincoln Center," and "Live from the Met" are negotiating with various pay-TV systems for first rights in a tiered airing setup. So the days of such programs free on PBS may be numbered. "Live From Lincoln Center" may turn out to be "Live on Tape From Lincoln Center" on PBS a year after the original performance.

None of this worries Kotlowitz. "Outside of the public," according to him, "the people who will benefit most will be the performers . . . and it is about time."

Whether the current boom in pay TV and cable planning for culture is more than temporary remains to be seen. But despite the commercial network attitudes to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that the preferences of upwardly mobile viewers (and that's what pay-TV consumers are at the moment) will vary greatly from the cultural preference of the American public surveyed recently by the 1980 Louis Harris study, "Americans and the Arts."

The poll indicated that attendance is surging at museums, concerts, movies, and live theater, despite economic pressures. The study was sponsored in part by the American Council for the Arts.

The survey reveals that more than half -- 51 percent -- of all Americans indicated that the arts are so important they would be willing to pay $25 additional in federal taxes that would go directly to support art programs.

Certainly such surveys are influencing cable organizations to believe that there is a huge $25 a year public awaiting their new cultural programming. But even if that is not the case right now, in most instances the culture cable systems are thinking of future mass markets, once cable systems penetrate nearly all American homes.

Culture may find it difficult to enter the market then. But, in the meantime , the corporate giants who more and more are moving into cable are willing to lose a few million dollars while they await the beginning of the "money machine" era in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when programming may move from the mere five-million viewer market for opera to the 100-million market of a Lucille Ball or Bob Hope special or a smash series like Dallas.

Kotlowitz is optimistic about the future of cultural programming on both cable and public broadcasting. "maybe the chronology of the airings may change a bit -- but basically, the more cultural programming there is, the greater the demands will be. The key is quality, however. If these new systems offer second-rate artistry, they will kill the market before it reaches its natural culmination.

"Let's hope they remember one thing which we have learned at PBS: High quality breeds high quality."

Kotlowitz, who has worked for many years in the nonprofit milieu of public broadcasting, may have forgotten that commercial networks unfortunately have discovered that often low quality breeds money.

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