Hey, CBS, Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

So CBS has parted ways with the Boston Pops and will no longer be airing the July 4 festivities nationally.

With apologies to Lisa Loopner, that’s so sad I forgot to cry.

The Pops’ partnership with commercial television – first WCVB and A&E and then WBZ and CBS — made the franchise ever more famous and brought more coin of the realm into the parental coffers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (a good thing). Artistically, the alliance with CBS has been a disaster. The Pops’ exodus from WGBH and public television in the late ‘80s to commercial television ultimately became akin to Elvis Presley going Vegas. Though Elvis kept a little more of his dignity.

I say this as someone who originally thought that the Pops leaving Channel 2 for commercial television was a good thing. As a television critic for the Boston Globe in the 1980s and '90s it seemed as natural as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert leaving public television. Why should public TV spend the public’s dollars when the marketplace was ready to step in? We would painfully find out why as the July 4 concert left public television, first for Channel 7 (1986 on July 5), then Channel 5 (beginning 1990), then Channel 5 and A&E (1991) and finally Channel 4 and CBS (2003).

Not that the Pops has ever been an artistically pristine endeavor — its very name suggests non-elitism and an acknowledgement of public taste. Still, the CBS telecasts have been a far cry from Arthur Fiedler’s original intent of introducing the public to classical music through the light classics. By the time CBS was through with things, Keith Lockhart and the Pops — the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, to be precise — were only playing the last three minutes of “The 1812 Overture” on national television, which was no longer good enough to introduce the fireworks. We had Michael Chiklis, star of a new show on — what a coincidence — CBS for that.

Of course, it’s no secret that classical music doesn’t play the same role in our national life as it used to. CBS once had its own orchestra, led by Bruno Walter. Those days are long gone and fewer and fewer people are singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Toscanini” [Walter’s more famous counterpart at NBC].

It is instructive to remember, though, that the vision back then was that great institutions could lift people up by exposing them to the arts and sciences, even something as relatively undemanding as a Tchaikovsky overture. The ethos that CBS and the Pops have been practicing on July 4 is that the telecasts should simply give the people what they want – and not the people at the Esplanade, but the national prime-time audience. Eighteen minutes of Tchaikovsky too long? Cut it to three. Kids can’t stay up till 10:30 for the fireworks? Too bad, this is prime time, baby. Don’t like the sights around the river? We’ll pre-record the images. The audio from the fireworks isn’t good enough? We’ve got canned sentimentality to fill the void. Too mindlessly jingoistic? Hey, this is July 4.

The Pops and executive producer David Mugar were willing partners in making the telecast so tacky. Maybe with CBS out of the picture the Pops can get back to some semblance of respectability on July 4. As it is, the telecast has been moved back to a 10 p.m. finish on Channel 4, which is owned by CBS, and the main musical guest this year won’t be a cliché-ridden country singer or someone from the “American Idol” school of holding a note forever without doing anything with it. It’s the fine local blues singer Susan Tedeschi. Of course we still have Channel 4 to contend with — “Maestro, I know you’re slammed” — but so be it. The days of the classy Natalie Jacobson — Channel 5’s host — are almost as dim a memory as those of Toscanini.

Ayla Brown is also on the bill and some chat lines are disparaging the choice — she’s the former senator’s daughter. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I really haven’t heard enough of her singing to judge, though this video doesn’t hold out a whole lot of hope.

But maybe next year the Pops can start to get back to what the Pops does best — find that middle ground where artistic excellence rubs shoulders with popular taste, instead of getting completely subsumed by it and becoming a “Simpsons”-like parody of pandering to the masses.

CBS Ends National Broadcast of July 4 Pops Concert

This program aired on June 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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