By Earle Hitchner
In the April cover story of GQ magazine, Mike Piazza, the New York Mets’ $91-million catcher, brushes off a baseball fan’s complaint about bloated Major League contracts with this retort: "Hey, if you don’t like it, take your kids to see ‘Riverdance.’ "
It’s unthinkable that a comment like that would have been made even four years ago. Imagine, a show of Irish music and dance so familiar now that it needs no qualification or clarification. Since 1995, the numerous airings of the "Riverdance" video on public television stations across the country have helped ingrain the show in the general public’s consciousness.
"We’ve been putting Irish programming on the air long before ‘Riverdance’ came along, and not just around St. Patrick’s Day," said Susan Soberman, publicist for WLIW, Channel 21. Based in Plainview, N.Y., and serving 29 counties in the tristate area, WLIW is the fourth most-watched public TV station in the U.S., with a weekly cumulative audience of 1.9 million households and an operating budget of $10 million.
"In recent months, we had Frank Patterson during a December pledge drive, and in February we did a program on Brendan the Navigator," Soberman said.
Also in February, WLIW broadcast the documentary "The Road to Bloody Sunday: How the Troubles in Ireland Began," and a staple of the station’s regular weekly schedule is "Ballykissangel," a popular series combining comedy and drama about an English priest in a small Irish town.
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"Our Irish audience is Irish 12 months a year," said Terrel Cass, president and general manager of WLIW, "so we air Irish programming year-round."
That has included Jenny Bristow’s Irish cooking series and "Out of Ireland," an Irish news program broadcast twice a week on WLIW, which also distributes it to other public TV stations across America.
"We often use the time following the weekly Tuesday broadcast of ‘Out of Ireland’ as a natural springboard into more Irish programming," said Nick Frazer, WLIW’s program manager. "We have aired Irish movies in our Sunday night movie slot, Irish documentaries of a public affairs nature in our Thursday, 9 p.m., public-affairs time slot, and Irish dramas, like ‘Ballykissangel,’ in our established Wednesday, 9 p.m., drama time slot. We go far beyond March with these offers."
In March, when WLIW held one of its three annual on-air fund-raising drives, the station’s Irish programming included "Black 47 With the Trinity Irish Dancers," "The Piper’s Call" with Liam O’Flynn, and "The Irish Tenors" with Anthony Kearns, Ronan Tynan, and John McDermott. This last show was "our most successful program in the March 1999 membership campaign," Cass said. "The response to ‘The Irish Tenors’ has been phenomenal — viewers pledged support of $191,758 to the station around that program." It accounted for 18 percent of WLIW’s entire March fund-raising total of $1,058,000, itself an increase of almost 8 percent from the March 1998 total of $980,888.
"I plan to use as much or more Irish programming in the future," Frazer said. "This is still an underserved segment of the community."
Hibernian culture on WNET
Like WLIW, WNET, Channel 13 in Manhattan, offers programming with multicultural, multi-ethnic appeal to its viewers, and a key part of that is Irish.
With an operating budget of about $120 million and an average prime-time audience rating of 2.2 (percentage of all those watching TV in the same broadcast area at the same time), WNET is the biggest public television station in America. Its March 5-21 on-air drive, the main fund-raiser of three held each year, attracted 35,000 pledges and raised $3.3 million. Of those pledges, said Paula Kerger, WNET’s vice president of development, "our Irish programming accounted for about 15 percent, or 5,200 donors. This year’s was a good drive for us, more than last year’s."
Irish programming that appeared during WNET’s March fund-raiser, however, did not top the drive. "Get Healthy Now! With Gary Null" and "Your Money Matters With Jonathan Pond 1999" led the way. "Everyone wants to live forever and make a lot of money," half-jested Anne Gorfinkel, WNET’s deputy director of programming. In a more serious vein, she said: " ‘The Irish Tenors’ was number three for us. It was a great success, not so much in terms of ratings, but for the people who watched it. They really seemed to enjoy it, and we got a lot of new members.
"Frank McCourt’s ‘The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way’ [a revue staged by New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre and shot on video] did nicely for us too," continued Gorfinkel. "Though it’s a beautiful program, Michael Flatley’s ‘Feet of Flames’ did not do as well as we hoped, possibly because it’s been available on home video for a number of months."
Historically, the biggest fund-raising successes at WNET have been the "Three Tenors" programs featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo, and "Les Miserables," with "Riverdance" coming in third or fourth overall. The criteria WNET applies to program selection, Irish or otherwise, are comparable to those at WLIW.
"We look at the best possible programming that’s available," Kerger said. "If you produce quality, the viewers will follow. We have a responsibility as the largest producer of cultural programming in America, one we take very seriously."
She concedes, however, that programming during pledge periods carries an additional responsibility: to attract new viewers who, hopefully, will become new members. To the question of whether quality is inevitably compromised by commerce, Kerger replied: "If we were doing a program that only appeals to three people, then maybe it would be better to send videocassettes out. We really do try to balance what we offer. We think about the community we live in. And we’re incredibly grateful for the support from the Irish-American community. Our partnership with them is very important to us."
That sense of commitment to the Irish-American community can also be seen in such multi-part documentaries as "The Irish in America: Long Journey Home" and "Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America," both of which were broadcast by WNET outside of March.
WYBE’s "green" programming
Smaller in size and stature than WLIW and WNET, and not a PBS member as they are, WYBE in Philadelphia is another public television station dedicated to serving the community it resides in. The station has an operating budget of just over $2 million and reaches 750,000 to 1 million households a month. In business for nearly nine years, WYBE has "been doing Irish programming on a consistent basis for over five years now," said Brian O’Neill, director of programming and production. "Every week of the year, we feature Irish programming, and we know that when we pledge around Irish programming, it does very well for us."
Though O’Neill didn’t offer specifics about WYBE’s fund-raisers, which last a week and are held four times a year, he did cite "The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way" as one of the pledge winners for the station. "Ballykissangel" was another.
"It has been gangbusters and does well for us all the time," O’Neill said of the station’s Irish programming. "And the audience isn’t just Irish — it’s people who love good writing, good acting, and good drama."
This past March, Irish programming increased substantially on WYBE. Among the shows aired were "The Corrs in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall," "Brendan the Navigator," "A Leap of Faith" (about a nonsectarian Northern Irish school for Protestant and Catholic children together), "Far Away From the Shamrock Shore" (Irish music), "Ancient Pulsing With Tommy Makem," "St. Patrick: The Living Legend," "Solas Live" (Irish traditional band featuring Philly native Seamus Egan), "Celtic Cousins" (St. Patrick’s Day parade in Montreal), "The Piper’s Call," "Black 47 With the Trinity Irish Dancers," "Green Fire and Ice" (Trinity Irish Dancers by themselves), and "Clancy in Closeup" (Dublin concert by Liam Clancy).
"We intend to offer as much Irish programming in the future," O’Neill said proudly, "and perhaps expand it."
"Erin Go Bravo"
A recent New York Times ad referred to Bravo as "the number one television network among upscale, professional, and well-educated adults." Owned by Cablevision Systems Corporation on Long Island and available to over 38 million homes nationwide, Bravo draws an average viewership of 0.3 (percentage of all those watching TV at a given time) and is offered to cable TV customers as part of their basic programming package. As a result, there’s no need to fund-raise on the air. Even so, it is one of the few for-profit, Nielsen-rated TV networks seeking out Irish shows and series to program.
Dubbing the week of March 14-20 "Erin Go Bravo," the network featured "Bravo Profiles" of such Irish artists as Michael Flatley, Van Morrison, and Oscar Wilde. Seven times during the week it broadcast "Celtic Tides," a one-hour program made in Canada that featured Altan, Clannad, Mary Black, the Chieftains, and Solas, and Bravo ran a cross-promotion with Putumayo World Music, maker of the show’s companion CD. A portion of the proceeds from CD sales will be contributed to the American Ireland Fund to support relief efforts for children in Northern Ireland.
"There’s a real resurgence of interest in Irish music and dance," said Frances Berwick, senior vice president of programming at Bravo, "so it’s not really surprising how well ‘Celtic Tides’ did for us, given the popularity of shows like ‘Riverdance’ and ‘Lord of the Dance.’"
The centerpiece of the Bravo week was "The Hanging Gale," a four-hour series dramatizing the plight of an Irish family to save their farm during the Great Famine. Produced by the small Irish company Little Bird in association with Northern Ireland BBC, "The Hanging Gale" was "a real find for us," Berwick said. "It was a strong, serious series, and we will bring it once or twice later in the year because there’s such an interest in it."
The Nielsen sweeps periods (times when advertising rates will be pegged to rated viewership) are February, May, and November for Bravo. So its emphasis on Irish programming during March was not motivated by mere numbers, though "every time we air the Michael Flatley interview on ‘Bravo Profiles,’ it gets a consistently high rating, whether in March or not," Berwick said. "There was a concentration of Irish programming on Bravo this year because there was so much strong, quality material out there that we could offer. We’ve listened to our audience and what they want."
Meeting the test for quality
Is it good enough? That’s the overriding criterion for program selection cited by WLIW, WNET, WYBE, and Bravo. The first three are public TV stations dependent on viewer pledges, and to entice more viewers to pledge, some critics argue, public television is lowering the bar of quality to bring in the bucks.
Cutbacks in funding by the National Endowment for the Arts and other federal sources have perhaps exacerbated the problem. In fiscal year 1995, the NEA had a federal appropriations budget of $162,311,000; for 1999, it is $98,000,000. In 1990, the NEA earmarked $6,465,000 out of its overall budget for TV series intended for public broadcasting; by 1998, that figure had dropped to $1,580,000.
In the wake of such reductions, public TV stations have certainly felt the pressure to become more self-reliant. Does that inevitably lead to greater commercialism? Hardly. But shows like "The Irish Tenors," a knockoff of the "Three Tenors" formula, are open to criticism from both a commercial and an artistic perspective. It’s already been pointed out by other commentators that John McDermott is a native Scot transplanted to Canada, which calls into question the legitimacy of the title "The Irish Tenors." His voice, pleasant enough to sell hundreds of thousands of records through American TV ads, is by no means of operatic stature. As such, it is out of place beside the tenors of Kearns and Tynan, who are both Irish and both capable of singing at an operatic level. Even so, the power of public TV to boost artists’ profiles and record sales is indisputable: "The Irish Tenors" album was No. 3 on the "Top World Music Albums" chart in the April 10th Billboard magazine.
Still, the fact that WLIW, WNET, WYBE, and Bravo are being praised and, at times, panned for the merits of their Irish shows — rather than being lambasted for a lack of them — is a further indication of the ongoing vitality and growing appeal of such programming. And if some of the best and brightest Irish music, dance, cinema, and theater has now moved into the American mainstream — think back to Mike Piazza’s comment — then public TV stations like WLIW, WNET, and WYBE and cable networks like Bravo must be credited for helping to pave the way.