Return of the Vast Wasteland?

September 27th, 2010 Comments Off on Return of the Vast Wasteland?

I keep reading articles about how people are getting excellent response to customer service complaints by starting websites, posting public Facebook messages and kvetching on Twitter. The reports say that major companies are monitoring the internet and proactively addressing issues with customers based on what they see online, lest public opinion take off in the wrong direction.

Consequently, when I saw two affronts to, well, everyone who works in or loves theatre, I decided to test this theory. Since I couldn’t start a website to save my life, and reserve Facebook solely for friends I’ve known since college or earlier, I turned to my social media tool of choice, Twitter.

The first affront, which I became aware of via pro-theatre agitator Leonard Jacobs (@clydefitch), came from the USA Network (@USA_Network). I happen to be a great fan of USA programming, in particular their In Plain Sight with Mary McCormack and Frederick Weller, both actors with solid stage credits. So when Leonard’s brief tweet, leading to his blog, pointed out that USA’s new “Character Blog” had launched in 10 categories, but without theatre as a topic, I was incensed. After all, theatre has had characters (and character) since long before TV was invented. Did USA Network really feel that theatrical characters weren’t worthy of their attention?

So I sent out a spate of tweets chastising USA for their shortsightedness, to accompany Leonard’s own drumbeat, and what do you know? By late afternoon that day, USA Network was tweeting directly back to us, saying they had enormous respect for theatre and saying that they planned to add theatre to their repertory of blogs soon, asking us to give them time. I didn’t know exactly what they needed time for, since there are countless passionate, well-informed theatre bloggers who would jump at the opportunity for the promotional platform of a cable-network blog. But I decided I had rattled their cage enough, and took them at their word.

The second affront was more recent. Ovation TV, an arts dedicated channel, also launched a quartet of blogs under the banner CulturePop (@CulturePOPcom), and incredibly theatre wasn’t among them — nor was dance, opera, music or independent film, all aspects of Ovation’s programming. Instead, they offered a Bravo-like selection of Style, Art & Design, Food and “deals.” Consequently, I began tweeting my dismay. I had already seen the Arts & Entertainment Network devolve into A&E and don’t even get me started on where Bravo began and where they stand today. I’m even concerned when I see doo-wop acts on PBS during pledge drives.

I will hand it to Ovation – their response to my tweets was almost immediate, and while they actually seemed a bit peeved when I suggested they were relegating theatre to second-class status, a few back and forth messages established that they plan to add theatre to their blog mix. I have to give credit to whoever does their tweeting for their rapid response and genuine human voice.

So, you may well ask, what has been the result of all of this “lobbying by tweet” to date? Zilch.

More than two months after USA Network promised they’d be adding theatre, their blog selections are unchanged. My recent tweets have gone unanswered. It’s been several weeks for Ovation TV, and while as I write I can get 20% off at something called Poketo, America’s only arts dedicated network is running a website and blog series that barely touches upon the arts.

I am not naive. I understand that, to most TV networks, theatre is a niche, though frankly there are an awful lot of people filling theatres around the country every night. It appears that television, by and large, wants theatre, and indeed the arts overall, to remain a niche. Save for our friends at CBS, who continue to provide broadcast platforms for the Tonys and the Kennedy Center Honors, the evidence of commitment to the performing and fine arts on the television spectrum, which has multiplied far beyond Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels,” is minimal. Television rarely uses its vast reach and influence to inform Americans of the remarkable artistic work that cannot be seen via co-ax cable or satellite.

While I am quite certain that the prior paragraph particularly incenses Ovation TV, which does in fact offer a broad array of arts programming, their sudden investment in CulturePop online suggests that they may yet go the way of prior arts networks. If indeed they want an audience of arts lovers tuning in to them, they have to stand up strong and in a loud voice (known as marketing and public relations) stand with the arts community and promote not just their own television programming, but the artistic work available in theatres, concert halls and museums.

As for USA Network, their mission is not arts-oriented, but when they create character oriented blogs and leave out the very art form which first invented dramatic characters, they insult everyone who loves theatre. And that’s a shame.

These particular examples are perhaps petty, but they can be solved with minimal expense and some HTML code. Maybe if the leaders in the entertainment community truly stood behind the arts at every possible turn, we’d make the headway that’s necessary with our city, state and federal governments to insure that the arts are seen and supported for what they should be: an essential part of education and daily life, not some vestigial form catering only to the elites.

So make yourself heard. Blog, Facebook, Tweet to USA Network and Ovation TV and tell them not to take you – and all of us – for granted. It’s a step. After all, there’s plenty of pop available, but never enough culture.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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