December will bring Wisconsin Public Radio listeners the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, as in past decades.
Wisconsin Public Radio hadn't planned to bring the Met back, but insistent local opera fans prevailed, and now the curtain has risen on a year-long struggle to determine what the state-operated broadcaster will do with its Saturday afternoons starting in December 1994.
The rout in Wisconsin was only the latest in a series of contests of will around the country. On one side are ratings-conscious public broadcasters who say the opera audience is too different and too small for the weekend hours. On the other side are famously dedicated opera lovers.
And in the background are the Met and its 54-season sponsor, Texaco, which sharpen the debate by insisting that the operas may be aired only at the time of their live matinees in Manhattan. With Texaco's financing, the Met distributes the operas to some 315 stations in the country, including about 219 public stations.
In Madison last Friday, the ad hoc group Save the Met Live Broadcasts (STMLB), which claims 3,500 supporters, was scheduled to make its case to the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board, licensee of most of the state's public stations.
``We think they're too concerned with numbers and not with educating people and exposing people to good things,'' says Joanna Overn, an admitted opera buff and executive director of STMLB. ``It's discouraging to me to think that educational broadcasters are willing to throw out the Met.''
They won't this year, because the STMLB campaign persuaded Wisconsin Public Radio to reverse its decision to drop the Met this summer. "It simply was not worth the grief,'' explains Jack Mitchell, director of radio. ``Any benefit from this was not worth the negatives that were being engendered in the community.''
But Mitchell held open the possibility that the network would drop the Met a year from now. ``We'll see what happens nationally,'' he says.
Nationally, Mitchell's colleagues are talking tentatively about negotiating with the Met. And several dozen program directors said they'd like to tape-delay the Met when they were polled by Steve Olson, president of the Public Radio Program Directors Association.
When programmers discussed ``fixing'' their weekend ratings at the PRPD conference this month in Minneapolis, many — not all — were interested in persuading the Met to let them tape-delay the operas to an hour with a smaller potential audience.
The opening question may be to plead an exemption for the western time zones, as discussed among general managers at the Station Resource Group retreat in Utah last month.
Airing the Met at 1 or 2 on Saturday afternoon ``works fine for me,'' says John Berky, an opera supporter and director of radio at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, ``but for people who have to carry it at 10 o'clock in the morning — it's not a good time for opera. The Met would have difficulty if they had to present operas at 10 o'clock in the morning.''
Tom Thomas, facilitator of the Station Resource Group, expects the issue to come to a head eventually. ``At some point there will be a critical number [of stations] who say, `Here's the deal: we can carry the program when we choose to carry it or we simply won't carry it.' When there is a sufficient number, there will probably be an interesting discussion with the Metropolitan Opera.''
For now, however, there are no volunteers waving red flags at the Met. ``Anybody who is doing this would not particularly want to [discuss it in the press], given how the Met has dealt with others,'' says Thomas.
Deserved or not, the Met has the reputation of playing championship hardball in its defense.
In Wisconsin, Mitchell chose not to fight. ``Either side can be unreasonable and get away with it,'' he says. ``We could have held out; [the furor] would have passed, just as the Met can be adamant about it and can probably pull it off.''
If both the stations and the Met refuse to budge, it will be a ``messy situation,'' he predicts. ``Nobody's going to look real good.''
The opera company has been willing to negotiate other matters. Steve Olson, president of PRPD, says the Met was cooperative in supplying pledge-drive broadcasts, timely publicity materials and other things he sought on behalf of some 150 stations a few years ago, when he was p.d. at Vermont Public Radio.
But with the exception of stations in Hawaii and Alaska, broadcasters have been required to carry the programs live if they want them at all. The Met seems completely unwilling to permit tape-delay of its broadcasts.
``It's just not what we do,'' says Pamela Rath, who oversees the company's radio and TV programming as well as labor relations. ``It's like any other product in the marketplace. People take it or they don't.''
Rath says — as fans attest — that the immediacy of a live broadcast is an essential part of the Met programs. ``It is for the audience the aural equivalent of a sporting event. Anything can happen — somebody making an important debut, last-minute cancellations.''
The scheduling decision is up to the stations, Rath says. ``We want stations to carry us because it's a good thing for them and their audience.''
If broadcasters decide to drop the broadcasts, the Met may ask them why, and it will answer fans' questions about local cancellations, Rath says — ``we give responses only'' — but she denies vigorously that the Met takes out ads or does mass mailings to pressure rebellious broadcasters.
``The Met does not campaign. The Met is a public trust. The Met does not take retaliatory measures.''
Broadcasters should not assume that local Save the Met campaigns are whipped up in Manhattan, she says. ``The audience's response is out of our control.''
Many public radio stations are pleased to carry the Met on Saturday, of course. ``I think it's a part of what we ought to be doing,'' says Wally Smith, g.m. at KUSC in Los Angeles, even though he figures he could draw a larger audience with something else at that time, and the morning hour is ``inconvenient'' for the West Coast.
Other programmers wish they could oust the Met from its Saturday home. Audience researcher David Giovannoni expresses a common view: ``The Met is a jewel in public radio's crown. Where it's available, stations may use it to good effect. The problem is that it's a specialty program, and in very few cases will it serve listeners as well as something else that is central to the station's music format.''
In a 1988 column in Current, Giovannoni advised programmers that ``opera is a certain tune-out for most public radio listeners.''
Its audience is lower than average, he estimated. ``Opera programming accounts for approximately 2 percent of public radio's program hours, yet it accounts for only 1.3 percent of listener-hours.''
Because of its narrow appeal, he wrote, ``the damage it can inflict in a program schedule might very well outweigh its presumed and unproven positioning benefits'' as a unique service of public stations.
Mitchell heard the radios switching off across Wisconsin. ``The loyalty of the audience falls rather dramatically when the Met broadcasts come on on Saturdays,'' he reports. Wisconsin Public Radio would have replaced it with different programming, including broader-based classical music and a live broadcast of its nationally distributed quiz show Whad'Ya Know on its news/classical channels around the state.
Opera rations would have come through recordings aired on Friday nights. The theory is that opera fans — being rabid, as all parties admit — will seek out the singing whenever they can find it.
That would be one more step in a ``doomsday scenario'' sketched by STMLB Co-secretary Helen Schmedeman: ``No Met means no Lyric means no NPR World of Opera means few if any contemporary opera performances on radio.''
Wisconsin Public Radio has been reducing its opera output for years. The Madison operation dropped its recorded opera show years ago and recently discontinued taped broadcasts from Chicago's Lyric Opera and the Houston and San Francisco companies, says STMLB leader Joanna Overn.
In May, a friend of Overn's unexpectedly learned about Wisconsin Public Radio's plan to discontinue the Met when she attended a meeting of the network's friends group.
``I thought we should really try to do something,'' said Overn, who is president of Opera Buffs, an informal group that meets monthly to hear talks on opera.
She called Karlos Moser, director of the University of Wisconsin Opera, and Roland Johnson, artistic director of the Madison Opera, who became her co-chairs.
Within a few months, the group had 3,500 signatures supporting its aims.
"We were inundated with abuse,'' says Mitchell. The Madison Capital-Journal adopted the cause — providing the radio network's phone number in a news story — and opera advocates wrote to legislators and university officials and circulated the home phone numbers of Educational Communications Board members, he says.
Like other broadcasters who have endured public disputes over opera broadcasts, Mitchell noted that many radio supporters who don't listen to opera nevertheless think it should be part of public radio's offerings.
On July 16, Wisconsin Public Radio announced it would keep the Met on its schedule for a year.
STMLB, begun as a temporary effort, ``is now obliged to become a permanent watchdog,'' Overn says now.
The group was on guard Friday at the Educational Communications Board. According to statements released in advance, Overn has asked the board to insist on public hearings before the network makes major programming changes such as the Met decision.
Schmedeman urged the board to assert policy guidance, halt the shift to ``popular programming,'' and direct programmers to consult the state's musical leaders.
The Met question arose in many cities before the recent eruption in Madison. The broadcasts have been dropped in New Hampshire Public Radio and at KWSU in Pullman, Wash., for example.
And opera supporters used high-level political connections to defeat attempts to cancel or reschedule the Met at the state networks in West Virginia and Mississippi.
``Some of the people they contacted had some clout, you might say,'' says Dave Miller, who was p.d. in Mississippi when the question came up in the mid-'80s. ``There was at least the threat or implication that agency funding would be affected.''
In West Virginia, the state radio network considered dropping the Met about seven years ago, says Program Director Jeanne Fisher. Word got out, fans swung into action, underwriters threatened to pull funding, and the Met stayed. Now Fisher suggests that building opera's audience may be ``part of our mission'' rather than automatically assuming the audience is too small.
For stations that do carry the Met, the new season starts Dec. 4 with a season preview of recorded highlights and Dec. 11 with the company's broadcast premiere of Dvorak's ``Rusalka,'' and will run through April 23.
This will be a ``terribly exciting season,'' according to Rath, with celebrations of the 25th anniversaries of the debuts of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Both tenors will appear before the start of the usual broadcast schedule in an additional Texaco-sponsored opening-night broadcast on the evening of Sept. 27. Pavarotti also stars in I Lombardi, to be broadcast Jan. 15, and Domingo appears March 5 in Stifellio and April 2 in a new production of Otello. I Lombardi and Stiffelio, seldom-produced works by Verdi, are broadcast premieres for the Met.
posted Nov. 22, 2006
Copyright 1993 by Current Publishing Committee