Alongside educational and newsworthy content, since its inception our national public broadcasting network has always endeavored to connect audiences with the arts. By the time President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, initiating federal aid to the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting, local TV stations across America had already aired one of public television’s earliest hits, An Age of Kings, a 15-part series on Shakespeare’s plays about Britain’s monarchs.
But with the changing demographics of television audiences—not to mention a seismic shift toward streaming and on-demand content—public broadcasters have reimagined their artistic and cultural programming in order to reach broader audiences and cover new ground.
The New York City-based public television station WNET, for example, has spent over five decades broadcasting arts and cultural programs including Great Performances and American Masters. However, station management has recognized that it might be missing out on viewers who weren’t consuming arts programming through traditional broadcast television.
“We introduced streaming in order to reach a totally different audience than our traditional audience who would watch us on television,” says Diane Masciale, co-executive in charge of ALL ARTS. “If you aren't fully multi-platform, you're really missing some key components of your community.”
So in January 2019, 50 years after the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was incorporated as a nonprofit, WNET launched ALL ARTS, a first-of-its-kind streaming platform and broadcast channel, which offers arts and cultural programming 24 hours a day. The app is currently available on Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV.
ALL ARTS features a mix of original programs, including new and archival content produced by WNET, programming from other local public media affiliates, and even content acquired from around the world. Through its original productions, ALL ARTS also aims to showcase the talents of stellar local artists. For example, the new dance series In Motion recently featured an episode with Andrea Miller, the first-ever choreographer to be named artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as two episodes about new choreographers at Triskelion Arts, a Brooklyn-based performing arts space. The original music series The Set List features episodes from the BRIC JazzFest including the Carole King tribute Beyond Beautiful and performances from last year’s Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.
And a digital-first franchise called Broadway Sandwich follows performers from Broadway productions such as Hamilton and Kinky Boots on screen as they go about their normal lives during the hours between their matinee and evening performances. Some of them teach classes, hang out backstage, or visit with their pets. The show has turned into a viewer favorite.
“Everybody loved it so much that we actually packaged it into half-hour programs for broadcast, as well,” Masciale says.
In terms of archival programming, WNET has yielded some gems, including a 1964 interview with artist Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine Hopper—an accomplished artist in her own right.
So far, the reception to ALL ARTS has been strong, with 2 million impressions on social media and thousands of app downloads within weeks of launching. Masciale says that a large majority of the visitors to the ALL ARTS online platforms are aged 45 and younger, and that half of the visitors to the ALL ARTS YouTube channel are between the ages 18 and 25 years old, stats that she says points to ALL ARTS achieving its goal of reaching younger audiences.
“From programmatic preservation to the creation of new, engaging content, the ramifications in terms of whom it can touch and whom it can open the arts to are exciting,” says Susan Feder, a Mellon Foundation program officer in the Arts and Cultural Heritage program.
In addition to connecting with digital audiences, public television has been striving to diversify its geographical coverage of the arts and culture through its regular programming.
For example, with support from the Mellon Foundation, the program “American Creators,” PBS NewsHour’s new series on arts and culture in rural areas, aims to move beyond the more often-explored cultural centers in big cities in favor of a more nuanced look at the value, vibrancy, and diversity of the arts and culture in rural and non-urban areas. After all, 52 percent of the show’s viewers live in counties with fewer than 150,000 residents.
“The genesis of the rural arts focus was a feeling that, in a way, it's almost too easy to just look at the coasts and the big art centers,” says chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown, who serves as the show’s reporter.
“American Creators,” which is also available for viewing online via the PBS website, has profiled the Appalachian Film Workshop—now known simply as Appalshop—a media and arts organization and Mellon grantee located in the heart of Appalachian Kentucky which produces films about Appalachia and other rural areas that are missed by major media outlets. Another segment has featured the Rolling Rez Arts bus, a mobile arts space that offers art workshops, business training, and banking services to Native American artists on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation who may not be able to reach buyers or other services while living in remote areas.
This is a departure, Brown says, from the news coverage of Native country often centered on poverty and problems. “What this allowed us to do was to take a different kind of look at a very positive and energetic program that was going on,” he said.
But “American Creators” doesn’t shy away from addressing the social and economic problems that have struck rural regions, either. A recent segment about the tiny town of Green River, Utah examines how Epicenter, an arts and architecture non-profit, is revitalizing the area by making small repairs to local homes and renovating local businesses to attract new patrons.
“The series illuminates the role of the arts in civic life,” Feder says, “at a time when many smaller communities across the country have expressed a growing level of disenfranchisement, and tension has increased around pronounced differences in social values and economic disparity.”