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'It Plays In Peoria' : Channel 28's 'off Center' Is On Target

July 27, 1987|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — "Alive From Off Center," public television's showcase for avant-garde artists, apparently has entered the mainstream.

"It plays in Peoria!" said Melinda Ward, creator and, until recently, executive producer of the series, which began its third summer season of weekly half-hour programs earlier this month (July 13) and continues to air Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on KCET Channel 28.

The season consists of 10 productions by artists in the vanguard of dance, music, theater, comedy, film and video, seven of which have been originated expressly for the series. On tonight's segment, award-winning music video director Zbigniew Rybczynski explores state-of-the-art technology in the comic "Steps."

The host this year is Laurie Anderson, the popular performance and recording artist and film maker who herself has come to represent a breakthrough of the avant-garde artist into the mainstream.

Ward said that the budget for the series has increased from $600,000 in the initial 1985 season to $1.3 million, resulting in an increase in the number of original programs, as opposed to those produced previously and acquired for broadcast.

She said that enough money already is in place to assure a 1988 summer season. She also told of plans to produce hourlong "Off Center" specials for public television's prime-time schedule.

"We're now feeling secure, which will allow even more opportunity to experiment," Ward said by telephone from the suburban Washington headquarters of the Public Broadcasting Service, where she now is director of children's and cultural programming.

The sense of security stems from the fact that more than 75% of the country's 300 public television stations now broadcast the series, she said. "These include the top 30 markets, and some of the least-likely regions, such as the Southwest," Ward said.

"All of this means we will be able to give these artists the opportunity to do fuller-length pieces and to further experiment with the medium," continued Ward, who expressed the view that the current season is "less like MTV or even PBS, and more like off-off Broadway, or other areas in cities around the country where the avant-garde normally thrives."

Ward also pointed out that PBS research indicates that "an atypical, younger audience" has developed for the series, ranging in age from 19 to 48. "This is an age group that is comprised of a similar generation as most of these artists," Ward noted.

"Like the artists, they've grown up with television, and they've developed a love/hate relationship with it. They're also sophisticated, and they're looking for something more interesting than most network programming or MTV."

The artists have been attracted to the series for similar reasons, she said. "They see the medium both as a form for experimentation and as a way to reach wider audiences," Ward said.

Laurie Anderson, who shares the spotlight in introducing each weekly program with her electronic "clone," expressed similar sentiments.

"This series represents broader support for the arts community, and certainly it's the sort of (series) that supports my own desire to become more a part of popular culture," Anderson said by telephone from her home here.

Noting that public television's funding for the series represents "one of the few things the government does that I have no reservations about," Anderson added: "Really, it's quite amazing that some of this stuff gets on television at all!

"I think the value to the audience is that the series offers an alternative to what's usually offered on television, and for the artists it offers an opportunity to learn a lot more about TV and what TV's good for.

"It also may help build audiences," she added, "and for individual artists it may provide some form of validity . . . but it all depends on what the artist thinks of television. It may also suggest invalidity, to be seen as becoming more popular."

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