"Around Town," Washington's only weekly television program devoted to the local arts scene, will not return to WETA's schedule this fall in its traditional half-hour format.
Instead, the 18-year-old show hosted by Robert Aubry Davis will run as 21/2-minute segments, or interstitials, during program breaks throughout WETA's early evening and prime-time schedule.
The public television station's new vice president, Kevin Harris, who'll oversee the revised "Around Town," plans to produce 12 interstitials per month beginning in July.
The format leaves Jack Frost, who had been the show's producer since its inception, out of a job. A WETA spokeswoman would not discuss Frost's status with the station.
"We think it's changing into a really dynamic format," Harris said yesterday. "Same host, same panelists, same title. The only difference is we're making sure it's exposed to the more than 500,000 homes that watch us in a given month instead of the relatively small audience it gets as a stand-alone half-hour."
"Around Town," which is on summer hiatus, averaged a minuscule audience of about 10,000 homes this past season, making it one of the least-watched programs in the local TV market. Although public television audiences are considerably smaller than those for commercial networks, "Around Town" lost nearly two-thirds of its audience from its "Frontline" lead-in on Thursday nights this year.
The show's traditional format was simple: Davis moderated a rotating panel of critics who opined on local art exhibits, musical performances and theater, as well as movies.
"Around Town" was WETA's last regularly scheduled local public affairs program; its demise follows those of more politically oriented shows such as "D.C. Politics Hour" and "Metro Week." Locally themed programs are not moneymakers in the public broadcasting arena since other PBS stations won't buy them.
However, Harris said WETA will continue to produce local programming. He cited former CNN anchor Frank Sesno's new town hall meetings and a recent documentary on Silver Spring.
The "Around Town" panelists were informed of the changes by Harris in the past few weeks. Peter Fay, who was on the very first show, in January 1986, questioned the fragmentation of "Around Town."
"What the viewer is losing is the sense of conversation among interested people in which the viewer feels a sense of participation," Fay said. "That has been the hallmark of 'Around Town' since its inception."
"I'm going to miss the half-hour show, the disagreements and the collegiality that have made the show such a pleasure," said Jane Horwitz, a panelist who is also a contributor to The Washington Post.
Michael Kyrioglou, director of communications for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, called "Around Town" the "last bastion" of arts coverage by any of the local stations. He plans to start a letter-writing campaign to urge WETA executives to keep the current format.