It's incredibly rare to come across a television station that remains faithful to its roots since its debut. In order to keep up with the times, they'll make drastic changes solely to appeal to the younger generation while alienating the older generation. To use an example, stations like Cartoon Network, which started as a 2/47 channel known for airing all sorts of animation, from classics, to recent releases, to indie, to Anime and giving a platform to rising creators, has become a far cry from its original goal. (That will be a whole other topic on its own). Although change can be good and is also even important, often times stations take these changes a bit too far to keep up with the times. It's as if their predecessors don't matter as much as when they were most active and/or when they were still alive with the abundance works they contributed to our culture. This brings me to Classic Arts Showcase, a channel known for airing clips showcasing the fine arts.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Classic Arts Showcase (CAS) is an American 24-hour channel that hosts a variety of clips based in the classical arts, such as ballet, chamber, animation, musical theater, operatic performances, museum art, etc. The station is non-commercial and runs via satellite. Initially based out in Burbank, California (now Los Angeles) and is still on the air since its launch May 3rd, 1994, CAS continues to carry out its mission. The channel still retains the same format as it did upon its debut, while adding new clips, yet CAS never has to do anything special to keep up with the times to get its message across in order to stay relevant. What is it about the approach that still resonates to this day? To answer that question, I'll start with the organization's founder's early career, the late Lloyd E. Rigler and his vision when he conceived CAS, the reception the channel received over the years and how it measures up today in comparison to stations that fall into the mainstream banner like MTV that have turned away from their roots.
Lloyd Eugene Rigler (May 3rd 1915 - December 7th 2003) was a businessman, who later became a philanthropist. Born in Lehr, North Dakota, his parents owned and ran a general store catered to their local farming community in Wishek, North Dakota where he and his family resided. In his late teens, Rigler moved to live with relatives in Chicago, Illinois and worked to save up for college. He attended the University of Illinois and graduated 1939. Afterwards, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. As a means to support himself, Lloyd Rigler worked for a marketing research agency, conducting interviews. He later worked as a salesman at Decca Records in Los Angles. Initially, Rigler signed up to take part in the U.S. Navy during WWII, but due to poor eyesight from the left eye, he stayed in San Pedro California throughout the war. After the Second World War ended, Rigler met Lawrence E. Deutsch while he was working in the food industry. They became business partners, creating the national brand, Adolph's Meat Tenderizers, (which is owned by Mc.Cormack & Company). After selling their company, the business partners started a venture capital firm, the Ledler Corporation.
After Deutsch's death in 1977, Lloyd Rigler founded the Lloyd E. Rigler - Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. Among Rigler's other philanthropic pursuits include, Joffrey Ballet in the 1980's during its time at the Los Angeles Music Center, the restoration of Egyptian Theatre in the 1990's, founder donor of the Los Angles Music Center, refurbishing of Carnegie Hall, serving as Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors at the New York City Opera and making donations to the Los Angles County Museum of Arts.
With Lloyd Rigler's years of expertise and background in the fine arts as well as decades of capital saved up, it's no surprise he was the founder of an arts channel. So, what inspired the idea to craft Classic Arts Showcase as a 24-hour edutainment clip show? The short answer is Rigler's immense love for the fine arts and the course in which the times were changing.
Rigler took note how most Americans were increasingly becoming less exposed to the fine and performing arts. After decades of tracking tickets sales and observing the increasing amount of empty seats, this proved to be the case that a cultural shift was taking shape. As described on the official CAS website:
"CAS was the vision of Lloyd E. Rigler. It was his lifelong love of the performing arts - and his concern that the majority of Americans are rarely exposed to the world's greatest performances - that inspired this vision. After tracking ticket sales of live performances for decades, Rigler found arts organizations were performing to more empty seats every year, selling fewer tickets and charging more for them. With current audiences aging, and little or no arts exposure in homes and schools to build new audiences, Rigler sought to foster a wider appreciation of classic arts nationwide--through television. He envisioned the creation of a 24-hour non-commercial arts network, designed to bring the classic arts to the widest possible audience".
The format in which Rigler planned to accomplish this goal was by airing a select number of five to seven minute clips to fill eight hours and run them all day long. The line-up would change each week without a fixed schedule. This was similar to that of MTV's original 1981 format. The Founder's Profile states as follows:
"In 1981, MTV began airing short 3- to 5-minute rock music videos in succession, with no schedule and no particular order of play - and millions of viewers tuned in to see what was coming next. Rigler believed this format would be ideal for presenting classic arts performances - one in which viewers could see a wide variety of short performance videos, each of which would be a rare and unexpected gem."
The profile indicates what separates their content from other stations at the time:
"At a time when most offerings on television consist of "reality" shows, grisly crime dramas, sitcoms and "info-tainment," Classic Arts Showcase presents the greatest recorded performances of all time at no cost to the viewer, and with no commercial interruptions".
To this day, Classic Arts Showcase continues with its 'Expect the Unexpected' format. No schedule, "because the beauty of CAS is that you'll never know what to expect". The reason this approach proves to be effective, especially in an era of instant gratification, is that this delayed gratification of coming across an unexpected clip by surprise can easily draw viewers in. I'll get into what prompted MTV's change in format while CAS is still faithful to its original format towards the end, but first, I want to cover the reception CAS received over the years.
The overall reception of Classic Arts Showcase throughout the mid-1990's to the early 2000's truly speaks volumes to how viewers hold the station and its founder with high regards. In 1998, The Kansas City Star television critic, Aaron Barnhart starts his article, Classic Arts Showcase provides a midwinter cable treat, with the following:
"Viewers in upgraded American Cablevision zones may have noticed it already: In the last two weeks, some sort of classical-music video jukebox has taken over Channel 17, the local educational access channel operated by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Classical-music lovers will find it hard not to get roped in by the mix of ballet, operatic singing and instrumental pieces, most of them culled from old film stock or European music videos. Yes, many of the selections are beyond the familiar - Pavarotti singing the "Ave Maria," I Musici belting out a "Four Seasons" suite - but unlike a certain radio station in town, there are no annoying commercials or announcers to disrupt the relaxing ambiance on this TV channel. There's even the occasional vintage film clip from Alfred Hitchcock or Buster Keaton".
Barnhart quotes Jay Francis, Rigler's then assistant for the reasoning behind keeping CAS non-profit. "Mr. Rigler doesn't do any advertising because he doesn't believe in marketing a free product". Tom Brenneman, the founder of UMKC's IVN network and who also programmed for Channels 17 and 18 is also quoted in the article indicating "[t]here are a lot of things that say they're educational but there are lots of advertisements embedded in them , or they're trying to sway your opinion, and I won't put those on", to which he told TVKC. American art critic, Alan Klevit sheds CAS in a positive light in his book, The Art Beat, highlighting that Classic Arts Showcase prompts "habit-forming". Once a viewer catches sight of it, it can be difficult to turn away. From his own viewing experience, he delves into the excitement that he usually is "unwilling to turn the set off, for fear of missing a Buster Keaton vignette, or perhaps Lillian Gish, or Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, or some other classic [he] will treasure" (Klevit pp. 117-19). There's even an article published in The New York Times in 2002 by David Finkle, titled TELEVISION/RADIO; A Video Variety You Won't See on MTV. In the article, Finkle writes about the $26 million check Rigler wrote for the required transporter for the channel's signals to be directed at a satellite, indicating "[t]hat's $26 million Mr. Rigler will not see again. Nor will he recoup the $4 million he spends annually to keep his enterprise going. He figures he's more than $50 million in a hole he's happy to have dug for himself". And from the reception Classic Arts Showcase receives, even from the younger generation of viewers, rightly so. As Finkle continues with one very charming testimony, "[t]he gratification comes, [Rigler] said, from estimates that 10 percent of "Classic Arts Showcase" watchers are college age or younger. One viewer in that group sent a note saying, "I'm 12 years old, and I never knew you could dance on your toes"." Even so, present day CAS has a social media presence on Facebook and is available for streaming on Roku's channel store, as an app on Apple for Apple TV and is even available for streaming on its own website.
When it comes to how the organization updates CAS, (aside from the changes made to the address screen when their headquarters moved from Burbank to Los Angeles), the only updates ever added on CAS are the addition of new clips once they acquire the rights from the respective copyright owners to air them. Other than that, the 'look and feel' of the channel still resembles its 1994 debut, yet is still going strong while MTV (and other mainstream channels) made drastic changes to keep up with the times. Why is that?
The reason I can best describe is something my voice instructor, Brandon Santini once said when he and I were discussing the differences between classical music and mainstream pop. Classic music is consistent, whereas pop is constantly reliant on trends. That's why when you try to compare MTV from its early days to its current trends with Classic Art Showcase drawing inspiration from its original model and sticking to it to this day, you'll immediately notice that there are specific surrounding factors that contribute to how both stations evolved. Because MTV is so mainstream and thus competing with other mainstream platforms, the channel adds other content in order to stay as 'relevant' as possible. Plus there is also YouTube, which offers easy access to the same pop/rock music videos as MTV with just one instant click, tap or swipe to access. People already are familiar with mainstream music by name because it's plastered everywhere, from TV to radio, to internet, to social media, to streaming services, etc. Again, instant gratification with no surprises. Once the trend or pop star is no longer relevant, everyone moves on to, what we call, 'the next big thing'. Classic Arts Showcase's model, despite the early 1980's MTV influence still works today because most people know the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy by growing up with a familiar piece written by these composers, but may not know the full story behind the great masters. Some of us might have heard classical music or references to opera from cartoons like Tom and Jerry, The Smurfs, Loony Tunes or even Ren and Stimpy and Sponge Bob Square Pants to name a few or even seen such references from commercials. Some of us who are old enough to remember the Windows 95 operating system came with a few MIDI files of classical music renditions. Any which way, much of our culture and its lush history is easily embedded in our subconscious mind, so it stayed rooted there. We feel connected to it in some form or another, whether we are aware of it or not. With a seemingly endless library of culture from all walks of life, we feel that connection more than we realize. After all, societies and cultures would cease to exist without their roots and origins. That's why pop culture pays homage to the classic arts.
This would explain why when people stumble across CAS by chance, be it through channel surfing, internet recommendations, in an article or even through an app store, they feel drawn into it. One video after another, one would be so intrigued to see what they might find next. I think it's also the excitement of seeing something some audiences thought might be boring to watch, especially after being so accustomed to something constantly sold to them via easy access in all their waking hours. The new thing ends up becoming the same old routine and monotony. Because the arts are designed to speak to the human condition, they start to organically click with people. Even young children are surprised when they find they liked what they saw more than they expected. The arts even exceed their expectations. An episode of the educational children's series, Arthur titled Lights, Camera...Opera! (with guest star, Rodney Gilfry), covers this topic as well as the popular Nickelodeon Nick Toon, Hey, Arnold!, in the episode What's Opera Arnold?. (It's also important to note that the episode of Hey, Arnold! not only pays homage to the operatic arts, but also pays homage to the 1957 Loony Toons episode, What's Opera, Doc?, which as the title suggests, paid homage to the performing arts. Again, another example of pop culture drawing references to their roots, in this case a more modern animation drawing from the Golden Era of animation, which I plan to cover in a later post).
I'll even briefly add my own story of how I learned about Classic Arts Showcase. While my family and I were staying for the first time at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach in 2010 (the now demolished 1973 building, but nonetheless), I started browsing the television channels. I stopped at VA Beach's educational local channel, 46 or 47 and saw they were playing a music video paired with classical music. I noticed the ARTS logo at the lower right hand corner of the screen. As someone who was in her early 20's at the time, I wasn't really into classical music. I would just study the material for assignments I was given in school, but not something I would go all in for on my own accord. I didn't think CAS was going to stick with me. Lo and behold, I've been a frequent viewer of Classic Arts Showcase ever since then!
Times will always change and with that, trends will continue to evolve. Hence why stations catered to the mainstream will always take drastic steps to stay afloat. When it comes to the arts, Classic Arts Showcase is a unique channel that sticks to the less is more mantra. It all started with Lloyd E. Rigler's lifelong fondness for the arts and thanks to his past experience as businessman and his philanthropic work, he saved up and used that capital to bring his vision to fruition. The efforts well paid off, even long after Rigler's death. While other stations steer from their early roots due to pressures to compete for relevance, CAS retains its timeless lure and continues to draw new viewers in. It's also very refreshing that CAS never needs to over pronounce its educational value. Most audiences don't like to be preached to, so Classic Arts Showcase encourages its viewers to explore the world of the arts naturally and organically and sometimes, that's all it takes. All you need to peak people's interest and entice them to attend an upcoming ballet, spend an afternoon touring their local museum or browse through a collection of classic films from the Silent Era is just a simple approach and mission that will resonate for years to come.
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