Friday, August 11, 2006

Blues for PBS and Thirteen

Channel Thirteen, New York’s local PBS affiliate says “if Thirteen didn’t do it, who would?” That’s a question jazz and blues fans would like answered these days.

In 2000, PBS premiered Ken Burns’ Jazz, and during its pledge breaks, Channel Thirteen assured its viewers that they were the home for jazz programming. It would be six full years before PBS would follow through on that implied promise of regular jazz programming with Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis. Here in New York, arguably the jazz capitol of the world, Channel Thirteen deemed Thursdays at 12:30 a.m. to be the proper time slot for such a program (currently on hiatus).

The International Association of Jazz Educators launched a letter writing campaign, but obviously Thirteen did not take it seriously. I sent my letter asking Thirteen to put Legends of Jazz in a timeslot accessible to young viewers. Five months later, I finally received a form letter response (dated June 23). Evidently, clerical efficiency isn’t Thirteen’s strong suit either.

If you believe in Public Broadcasting, it must be for programs like Legends of Jazz. PBS should be all about bringing the finest performing arts and culture to those who would not otherwise have access to them. While relegating Legends to the wee hours, Thirteen gives primetime slots to Yanni: Live! and hardcore leftwing programming like Now (formerly with Bill Moyers) and Frontline. If you search their schedule for jazz in the month of August, you will come up empty.

Jazz fans should at least be happy they can sometimes Tivo Legends. If you are a blues fan who made a pledge to Thirteen, during Martin Scorcese’s The Blues, PBS and Thirteen haven’t given you anything to show for it. You can watch the series re-run on August 29-31 at 12:30 am (the designated jazz/blues timeslot evidently), but if you were expecting more original blues programming, you were had, another victim of pledge week bait and switch.

In recent weeks, PBS has shown some worthy classical programming, but jazz and blues fans are out in the cold. It is difficult to argue in favor of taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting, but it would be possible, if PBS and Thirteen better lived up to their ideals and consistently offered symphony, opera, jazz, blues, drama, science, and fine arts programming of the highest caliber to those who would otherwise be unable to enjoy them. Unfortunately, too often Thirteen offers programming that is indefensible, like Yanni (call me a music snob) or infomercials for Wayne Dyer’s new age schtick, The Power of Intention. PBS should be culturally elite and politically non-partisan, because they accept taxpayer funds extracted from everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Currently, they fail on both counts, but moving Legends of Jazz to a normal person’s timeslot would be a nice improvement.