What Outcome Had The US Have Sustained Its Version Of The BBC?

Back in December, Joseph Horowitz had a lengthy piece in The American Scholar about the impact of the pandemic on the arts in America. I may revisit the article in future posts, but there was one section that caught my attention because it seemed a testament to both the influence of a shared cultural ideal and the power of leaders who advance an agenda.

Horowitz writes that while there was resistance to government run media a la the BBC, there seemed to be enough will and interest post-Works Progress Administration to support programming featuring public intellectuals and artists.

A little-known footnote to this 1930s saga of the artist and the state was an unsuccessful campaign to implement an “American BBC,” … An alliance of university and radio leaders argued that a public radio system would ghettoize education. “Controlled radio” was also denounced as a “threat to democracy.” Crucially, David Sarnoff and William Paley, leading NBC and CBS respectively, were visionaries for whom an educational mission incorporating culture was a genuine priority, whatever its commercial liabilities…

Later, when TV entered the picture, CBS initiated Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus specials and Young People’s Concerts, and Sarnoff created an NBC Opera offering innovative productions of opera in English. But Paley retired as president in 1959, Sarnoff in 1970; their successors gradually abandoned the high mission at hand. PBS and NPR, ironically, have offered nothing remotely as ambitious as the arts programming CBS and NBC once championed. If American arts audiences today compare unfavorably with audiences elsewhere, the minimal role of the state—the cumulative absence of an “American BBC”—is far from irrelevant.

I frequently hear people extolling Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and wonder why no one tries to replicate them since they were so well-received, but Horowitz’s piece recounts how the lack of investment, both in terms of general policy and economics, allowed both opportunity and popular will and interest in these experiences to wane.

Even though the Western canon of arts and literature were lionized to the exclusion of others during this era, a different infrastructure would exist today to amplify a shift telling a broader range of stories had focus and investment been sustained.

Horowitz’s conclusion near the close of the article is that the upheaval cause by the pandemic has provided another set of opportunities to effect enduring change if we are ready to take it.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “What Outcome Had The US Have Sustained Its Version Of The BBC?”

  1. And of course Sarnoff — always referred to as “General” — created the NBC Symphony and hired Toscanini to lead it. Yes, there was a time in America — the late ’40s through mid to late ’50s — when classical music ALMOST became mainstream, thanks to radio and television broadcasts. Hard to believe today just how much “culture” was available to the public and not just classical music but jazz, dance and theatre. (Anyone familiar with Gene Kelly’s amazing documentary, “Dancing: A Man’s Game?”) Speaking of Young People’s Concerts, as recently as the early 1980s CBS was still broadcasting the NY Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, not live of course but taped. I know because I played “extra” percussion for one, a program about rhythm with Gunther Schuller conducting and hosted by Beverly Sills.

    There was a time when PBS did much, much more than today – think Live From Lincoln Center, Live From the Met, Dance in America — all of which are either completely gone or 95% gone. And this year is the 50th anniversary of pubic radio. It makes me want to weep.

  2. Wow. Your last comment, “… the upheaval cause by the pandemic has provided another set of opportunities to effect enduring change if we are ready to take it,” literally gave me chills. While the task to find opportunities in a pandemic poses as difficult, truly there are ways to creatively express yourself in any capacity. Search for it. Find it. It’s a matter of surviving for artists and those that surround the arts.
    I also excite myself when the thought of opportunities that will come post pandemic. Just the thought of people starving for faces, starving for concerts, starving for live theater…I become overwhelmed. Opportunities are here. We have to take them. We also have to look toward the future and realize these last 10 months have not equated to the end of all social extravaganzas. We have to project into the future with open arms and know that there will be a day when those opportunities are awarded graciously and with ease and excitement.


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