WNET’s All Arts network may grow into multicast channel offering

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David Andrako

Débo Ray sings with Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science at last year’s BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn. The performance will be featured in an upcoming broadcast on WNET’s All Arts network.

WNET’s ambitious All Arts multicast channel and streaming service could develop into a package of cultural content available to stations nationwide.

All Arts’ programming aims to “illuminate the emerging to the established, the hybrid to the pure in dance, film, stories, music, theater, visual art, design and all other forms of creative expression,” the New York City station said in an announcement Oct. 16.

Some content, including an original show, is now available online. The complete network will launch Jan. 28.

WNET President Neal Shapiro often used the word “excited” when discussing the project. “Just like arts themselves, this channel is a blank canvas, and we’re excited to see just what happens,” he said.

The station will pull from “four buckets” of content to schedule the network, Shapiro said. The channel’s programmers can time-shift PBS favorites such as Masterpiece, use international acquisitions and draw from WNET’s 55-year archive of local cultural offerings. WNET will also produce original content for All Arts.

Eight-minute episodes of its first new program, Broadway Sandwich, lets viewers hang out with Broadway stars between matinee and evening performances. One video reveals that actor Etai Benson of The Band’s Visit likes to jog in Central Park during his four-hour “sandwich” time between performances.

The WNET archives includes gems such as actress Meryl Streep’s first TV performance. “I can’t wait to see that myself,” Shapiro said. In 1977, Streep co-starred with John Lithgow in the Civil War–era Secret Service, a thriller on Great Performances.

Shapiro admitted that some rights clearance issues “are tricky. Everything is its own battle.” Much of WNET’s archival content predates streaming platforms. But reating content from the wellspring of culture in and around New York City offers a rare opportunity, Shapiro said.

“Perhaps we can capture the next generation of artists in their formative years,” he said. “I like to think that if we were doing this 60 years ago, we’d catch a young folk singer named Bob Dylan or a new stand-up comic named Richard Pryor.”

A large and diverse advisory board is helping WNET identify those promising performers. Its 14 members include former Juilliard School President Joe Polisi; Cliff Chenfeld, co-founder of indie label Razor & Tie; Harlem Stage Managing Director James King; and Limor Tomer, GM of the eclectic MetLiveArts series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former WNYC executive.

“That was the easiest thing I’ve ever recruited for,” Shapiro said of the board. “Everyone was so excited; everyone we asked said yes.”

The board will inform the station about “people we should be aware of” across genres, Shapiro said. It will also help plug WNET into new collaborations with cultural institutions across the area.

The work intersects nationally with PBS’ ongoing — and growing — focus on the arts. In July, PBS hired Jane Chu, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, into the new position of arts adviser. “We’ve had a number of great conversations with PBS,” Shapiro said. “We’re both excited about the amount of art available around the country.”

Shapiro said the programmers of All Arts at WNET will “use a wide aperture” to curate the channel’s content. The network “gives lots of people a chance to expand their horizons,” he said. “Viewers who enjoy more traditional genres can see younger artists, and younger viewers can experience more traditional works that we haven’t surfaced in quite some time.”

WNET has a long tradition of arts productions, both locally and nationally. It’s been home to Great Performances, PBS’ icon arts series, since its 1972 premiere. Shapiro proudly points to one of his first initiatives at the station, the national presentation of the New York Philharmonic’s historic concert in North Korea in 2008.

That year, Shapiro also oversaw the the launch of SundayArts, which was revamped as NYC-Arts for prime time in 2012. Shapiro said that success led to the collaborative Arts Content Sharing Initiative to distribute cultural programming among stations across the system. That’s still going strong six years later, Shapiro said, with 26 stations participating.

WNET

Weisbrodt

Shapiro believes All Arts is on a similar trajectory for national availability, and it’s being created for that possibility. “We called it All Arts, because that might turn into, say, All Arts Nebraska,” he said.

Shapiro declined to discuss the budget. Funding is coming from major donors such as Rosalind P. Walter and organizations including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Ten full-time employees are working on the project, led by All Arts Artistic Director Jörn Weisbrodt, who held the same title at the international Luminato Festival in Toronto and also served as artistic production director of the Berlin State Opera.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that a board of directors is helping WNET with the All Arts channel. It is an advisory board, not a board of directors. 

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