Jac Venza, PBS Pioneer and ‘Great Performances’ Creator, Dies at 97

Jac Venza, the PBS producer who pioneered programs such as Great Performances and Live From Lincoln Center, has died. He was 97.

Venza died Tuesday at his home in Lyme, Connecticut, his spouse, Daniel D. Routhier, told The New York Times.

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Venza began work designing sets at CBS in 1950 before going on to lead cultural programming at National Education Television in 1964. That would become the WNET Group, home of New York’s flagship PBS station, Channel 13.

“I realized,” Venza told the Times in 1982, “that the finest artists had not been asked to join television in a major way. To succeed, public television needed performances.”

Venza launched the Emmy-winning Great Performances in 1972, which also included Live From Lincoln Center, Theater in America and Dance in America. Over the years, he worked with the likes of George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams and more. Dustin Hoffman appeared in his first starring role on television in a 1966 production of The Journey of the Fifth Horse on NET.

Venza’s programming laid the groundwork for the theater, opera, music and dance still showcased on PBS today.

“To present fine artists in primetime, we have to do it at least as elegantly as CBS does Dallas,” Venza continued in 1982, a reference to the CBS drama that ran from 1978-91. “Commercial television is the most slickly, professionally produced in the world. So when a fine artist gives me something, I want to make sure it is well produced.”

In 1997, Venza became director of WNET’s cultural and arts programs, after which he further expanded programming, including American Visions (1997), Stage on Screen (2000-03), EGG the Arts Show (2000-05) and Broadway: The American Musical (2004). He also served as executive producer for Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (1998) and I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts (1999). He retired in 2004.

Venza won a Peabody Award in 1998, and over the course of his career also took home 10 Primetime Emmys, two other Emmys for lifetime achievement and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ralph Lowell Award. Until 2010, he held the record for the most Emmy nominations — 57 — for an individual.

Venza was born on Dec. 23, 1926, in Chicago, to Rosario and Frances Venza. His father was a shoe repairman, and the family lived behind his shop. He shined shoes as a child before moving to New York to pursue set design.

“There’s nothing in my background that should have brought me here,” Venza said in a 2002 interview. “I will come away from the system without a large bank account or a swimming pool, or owning one of those programs I produced, [but] what I will have 20 years from now, a lot of people in television won’t have. Our programs won’t spoil. They will be in schools and in videodisc collections. What we have won’t diminish with age.”

In addition to Routhier, he is survived by nieces and nephews.

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