Art on Public Media ‘Anywhere and Anytime’ – but on a flat budget

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WASHINGTON – The future of arts and culture on public media was the focus of a CCLP roundtable here on Wednesday, featuring leaders in broadcasting, on line and mobile media.

The challenge, summarized by Alyce Myatt of the National Endowment for the Arts, is to present more culture from more artists on more platforms – “anywhere and anytime” – at a time when resources are not increasing.
Click the following link for Myatt’s report: Alyce Myatt presentation.pdf

In addition to traditional television, radio, film and theater programs, Myatt said NEA is now funding “web-only” work, projects for tablets and cell phones, and interactive games.

She had especially high hopes for “Half the Sky,” a game based on the best-selling book. The game (see a preview here) is scheduled for release next month on Facebook. Also ready for release next month is a project with Spelman College, “Her Adventure“.

A third NEA-funded educational game, “Walden,” will be released later this year. As with “Half the Sky,” it is based on a book, immersing players in Henry David Thoreau’s world. Clips from “Walden,” still in development at USC, can be seen here.

But older media are still crucial, according to Donald Thoms, PBS Vice President for General Audience Programming, who reported that PBS broadcast more than 500 hours of arts programming on television last year. But there are more and more competitors trying to buy programs that in the past might have gone just to public broadcasting. Thoms identified HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and now Netflix as aggressive buyers of what has been traditional PBS fare.

“In drama, it’s also the History Channel,” Thoms added, noting the success of that network’s “Hatfield and McCoys” miniseries.

Marita Rivero, Vice PBS Shift.jpgPresident and General Manager for WGBH Radio and Television in Boston, added that her station relies on PBS for programs “that jump out at people.” Then she can build on that, adding work by and links to local artists and bloggers in New England to complement the national PBS programs.

Still unclear was the impact of “Downton Abbey,” which ended its third season on PBS Sunday night and attracted more than eight million viewers, the largest public TV audience since “The Civil War” in 1990 – and more viewers than any program that night on ABC, NBC or Fox. But whether those viewers can be lured to other PBS programs was not certain.

Also uncertain was whether these new PBS viewers would become members of local PBS stations and contribute during pledge drives. For now, according to Thoms, the most successful pledge drive programs are still doo wop.

PBS also attracts millions to its web site – 28 million people in all, according to the network. And one of the biggest online attractions for PBS is PBS Kids, which Joseph Bruns, executive vice president and chief operating officer of WETA television and radio in Washington DC, said demonstrates “huge potential for arts for children.”

But that potential may not be on television: Roland Legiardi-Laura, the founder of Power Poetry, said for today’s school students, their primary medium is their mobile telephone. So he stopped trying to persuade students to write poetry in their work books and now has begun asking them to write poetry on their cell phones – to great success. Working with Power Writers, a national school program, Legiardi-Laura said students now create, text and trade poems on their phones – and that improves reading and writing skills. Legiardi-Laura has produced a documentary highliughting the work of three students in New York; you can see the trailer here.

Myatt also identified mobile phones as a growing opportunity for arts and culture.

“We are getting lots of proposals for iPhones,” Myatt noted, adding that NEA also insists on Android versions.

Cell phones and the Internet were also becoming increasingly important for NPR:music.png Anya Grundman, who runs NPR Music said her network is creating new 24-hour streams on line for a variety of different music forms. NPR Music, she added, has also become a home for live performances.

Another participant, Roger LaMay, General Manager of WXPN in Philadelphia, agreed that NPR must focus more on music and arts. But he also emphasized the role of live performances. WXPN already has begun free live concerts every week from its building, all then folded into a program guide and partnerships with local music groups.
Click the following link for a copy of LaMay’s presentation: Roger LaMay presentation.pdf

Will live performance become a new trend? Another NPR station taking part in this week’s roundtable, WAMU in Washington DC, will also feature performances in a theater located in the station’s new building. Mark McDonald, WAMU’s Program Director, said WAMU will continue as an NPR news and talk station, but bringing cultural performances – and audiences – into his building will be an important step to build relationships with Washington’s communities.

Those live audiences at arts events may be producing an unexpected benefit, according to Jamie Bennett, NEA Chief of Staff: increases in public safety. The arts bring more people into the streets, and he says that translates into safer streets. Bennett said NEA has a project to map the impact of the arts on communities, pointing to the chart on page 11 of one study as an example . With resources stretched, new arguments for support of the arts will be especially important.

And in an era of flat budgets, Myatt pointed to one project’s solution that others could follow: The “Global Lives” producers matched its NEA with funds from hundreds of small contributions over Kickstarter.imgres.jpg

“Not since the invention of the phonograph” have we seen as much invention as we do today, according to Myatt. “You can make a terrific movie with this,” she added, holding a cell phone.

“We have a lot more people who think they are media professionals,” she said, adding that some are, and some need more work.

All of which suggests a 21st century version of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

This week’s program was part of a quarterly series of forums presented in partnership with the American University School of Communication and Current, which is published at AU.