For 15 years the most important man behind the scenes of live performance on American television has been ambling unobtrusively to his office at New York City's Lincoln Center. He is John Goberman, director of media development for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and executive producer of PBS's ``Live From Lincoln Center.'' We are chatting in his subterranean office about what, with some room for faulty administrative arithmetic, appears to be the 70th ``Live From Lincoln Center'': ``An Evening with Pl'acido Domingo'' (tomorrow, 8-10 p.m., check local listings).
Mr. Goberman feels that Domingo is a natural for the series even though the series is sometimes accused of featuringonly ``warhorses'' - the sure-fire operatic audience winners. ``We have plenty of shows without superstars,'' says Goberman, ``but people either don't watch them or forget they have watched them. We try to balance our shows. We look at new music, consider unusual performances, kinds of music that are so extraordinary that they should be telecast even though your grandmother might not watch it. But we try for a balance, a range, and it's rare that any single show can serve all the interests.
``For instance, we did a Pavarotti show recently, on which we placed with him American singers of national, but not international, reputation. It was not just another Pavarotti show - it was using his excitement to get exposure for those other artists, too.
``Domingo is perfect for us. He has not really done a solo concert in New York, and he is one of the greatest artists in the world today. We had the idea that he should do all of the many things he does so well - he plays the piano, conducts, sings Zarzuela and musical comedy, he accompanies, and he talks well. We didn't want him to do one aria after another - we wanted to show what a well-rounded musician he is. So we moved away from opera, back to the things he did before he was an opera singer. Did you know he sang something like 140 performances of `My Fair Lady' in Mexico City?''
At one time, it was believed that ``Live From Lincoln Center'' would eventually be in the forefront of pay-per-view TV, that a time would come when people would be asked to pay for each live performance they chose to watch on TV. That idea seems to be more distant today than it was 10 years ago. Why?
``Originally,'' says Goberman, ``we hoped we could start a pay-TV channel of our own, since we had a sufficient body of programming to fill such a channel. But soon it became apparent to those in power that they would always be able to make more money putting on a new movie or a variety show than an opera.
``Also, the great panoply of channels that was supposed to become available never really developed. CBS Cable and the Entertainment Channel soon folded. Now, of all of the planned cultural channels, only Arts & Entertainment [on basic cable] and Bravo [a pay service] still exist. A&E can afford to use mainly European state-sponsored taped performances; so few American cultural organizations gain from it, while Bravo seems to concentrate on good foreign films.''
Goberman still believes that someday it may be possible to start a cultural pay channel, when there are enough channels to go around and when so many of the available channels are not being used to sell gold chains, etc. But he believes the future of pay-per-view performance television for cultural events is very bleak for the generation ahead. ``Do you think people will pay $5 every time they want to see an opera on TV?'' he asks. ``No. I believe that people who think they want to see opera would rather pay $10 per month. The truth is there are probably more people who think they want to see opera than those who actually want to see one. And besides, in pay-per-view there is the terrible cost of promoting each single program.''
Goberman says he would like to see Lincoln Center stay pretty much as it is but add a production center, churning out children's programs, radio series, documentaries on the arts, not as part of ``Live From Lincoln Center'' but as a separate unit. ``However, the major thing to do today is to keep going as we are doing, and with corporate budgets being reduced as they are, with Exxon pulling out of some of its support for `Great Performances,' we must be thankful that our underwriting is secure for at least three more years.''
What's next for ``Live From Lincoln Center?'' ``We're still in the discussion stage, but it looks like there will be a vaudeville version of Shakespeare's ``Comedy of Errors.''
Have any great technical advances come out of the ``Live'' shows?
``We had a good strong idea to start with - performance. Over the years, I guess we've improved technically, made the cameras less obtrusive, improved the sound. But we're still not very different in concept or execution. ... Even when we do intermission interviews, we try to make them seem like normal interruptions of performance rather than planned little shows. We stick to the idea that what we are doing is event television, and the event is performance. That is terribly important.''