In our fast-paced times, it’s an unusual occurrence when a television show is able to celebrate its 25th anniversary. And when it’s a cultural programme – as in the case of Metrópolis – the possible candidates across Europe can probably be counted on one hand.
TVE, the Spanish public television station, can boast just such an anniversary: on 21 April, Metrópolis celebrated its 25th year on the air, a weekly programme on current trends in art and culture with a focus on audiovisual works such as video art; experimental, animated and short film; music videos and innovative commercials.
During the past 25 years, Metrópolis has steadily accompanied the Spanish and international art scene, featuring in its programmes artists such as Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Jenny Holzer, Michel Gondry, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Stelarc, Tony Oursler, Pipilotti Rist, William Kentridge, Nan Goldin, Francis Alí¿s, Jorge Macchi, AES+F, Björn Melhus, Corinna Schnitt, Candice Breitz, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Zilla Leutenegger, Marina Níºñez, Pilar Albarracín, Jon-Mikel Euba o Sergio Prego, Ana Laura Alaez, Itziar Okariz and many others.
In addition to portraits of artists, short films by filmmakers working in the same creative environment are also televised on the show – from computer animation to performance video to fictional documentary. Metrópolis reports regularly on festivals and events as well, such as the biennials in Venice and Sónar, the Zemos98 festival and the VAD international video and digital art festival in Girona. And Metrópolis is naturally also present on the Internet.
The early days
On that April day in 1985, Metrópolis went on the air for the first time on La 2, the second TVE channel, after midnight as last programme of the night. At first, the magazine was conceived as a “showcase” for creative innovations in the world’s metropolises. In the first five years especially, everything from design and architecture to film and music, dance and theatre, all the way to fine arts, photography and video art was presented.
Born in the wake of the video art boom, which reached the Spanish art scene in the mid-1980s, the programme’s content consisted primarily of this new genre, together with the likewise new music videos and computer animations.
It was only in the mid-1990s that the scope widened to include greater numbers of experimental and short films. This delay can be attributed to the fact that such films were hardly being produced in Spain during that period. Much has changed in the past 20 years, in particular as regards short fiction film in Spain. This new trend can be observed of late beyond Spain’s borders as well, at international festivals where Spanish fiction shorts are increasingly in evidence. More experimental works continue to be rare in this country, however, confirming the long-term impact of the lack of a tradition and the stifling of development (40 years of Franco’s dictatorship!).
One might say that Metrópolis has evolved over the years in line with its beginnings but has become increasingly specialized, today showing almost exclusively audiovisual and fine arts works. This specialization was naturally also a reaction to the changing television landscape, where programming gradually concentrated on shows with specific focuses, for example music, visual art or architecture.
Following a few attempts at modifying its emphasis some time ago, all of which were soon abandoned, Metrópolis has ultimately remained true to its original format: the show lasts 25 minutes and is broadcast each week in a slot that is by all means acceptable for a country of night-owls like Spain: shortly after midnight (yet no longer the last programme of the day as in the old times). The show is curated according to specific themes, but does without a host.
Unique selling points – that special quality
The show’s lasting success can surely be attributed to its format and above all the organization of the works according to theme, not to mention their quality. In the meantime, Metrópolis has attained cult status, making past shows collector’s items that are even used as teaching material – and not only for film classes.
In its early years, the programme took on immense importance in Spain as an information resource for those interested in culture and for art students; back then, the universities were still feeling the effects of the country’s isolation during the Franco regime and had an enormous amount of catching up to do. Many Spanish artists born in the 1960s and 70s note that they learned more from Metrópolis than at school or university.
Before the dawn of the Internet era, the programme was hence a true window onto the international arts scene, and indeed the only access route available for those who couldn’t afford to travel to art biennials and film or media art festivals. The fact that Metrópolis is still used in classroom instruction today can be explained by its carefully selected content and theme-oriented format. The way the show puts works on film in context and condenses them into 25-minute portions makes it ideal for use in teaching and training courses. It’s not without good reason that Metrópolis has often been described as a “guided tour through an exhibition”. And a tour of this kind is not subject to the same ageing process as a conventional television magazine.
The editors’ working method
Another definition of Metrópolis frequently heard is “the only curated television programme in Spain”. This surely has a great deal to do with the background in art and/or film history of many of the editors responsible for choosing content over the years, especially the freelancers, and their working method. Each programme is based on a research project, which, in particular in the case of the artist portrait, can extend over a long period of time: an artist is “discovered”, “watched” and finally “featured”. It’s only with more topical themes such as the “New wave in video performance” (“Performers”, 1996) or “Andalusian artists on the stream of African immigrants through the Straits of Gibraltar” (“Estrecho”, 2000) that the editorial team must of course react more quickly. Even here, however, they first wait a bit to be sure to choose the best works.
Programmes not based on a particular artist or genre, but rather on a certain theme, are often made up of a combination of works from all existing disciplines in audiovisual art: painting, sculpture, photography, performance, sound and videos, all the way to animated, experimental and short fiction film.
There are also special programmes on animation or short fiction film. These usually take up themes that can be found in the latest international or Spanish productions. Examples of such thematic programmes are: Future nightmares (“Pesadillas del futuro”, 2006), violence in the family (“Violencia familiar”, 2006), Identity problems (“Bichos raros”, 2008), the working woman today (“Trabajadoras”, 2008/2009), the exclusion of those viewed as “other” (“Diferendo”, 2009) or the impact of the economic crisis on individual lives (“La crísis en corto”, 2009).
Even in the era of YouTube, the selection of short films at Metrópolis is made primarily at festival visits and by previewing material supplied by distributors or film schools and universities, i.e. in cooperation with institutions that are acknowledged by the programmers as mediators of quality content.
It must be pointed out that the many advantages of the theme-based 25-minute format are coupled with a few disadvantages. Particularly in the case of short fiction, outstanding productions are often passed over because they are simply too long. Or an excellent film doesn’t quite fit into the themes that have crystallized out in the course of research.
As a programme always consists of one or more films that should offer different perspectives on a subject, the works that come into question are almost exclusively those with a running time of maximum 15 minutes. Nevertheless, the editors do keep their eyes on good works treating a unique theme – sometimes for years.
Audience and acceptance of the programme
As a rule, short-film programmes achieve high viewer ratings at Metrópolis. Among other reasons, this is because they’re seen here not only by committed Metrópolis fans, but also by a broader audience. The extremely heterogeneous, but very loyal, fan community can be estimated based on viewer ratings at 150,000. That is the average for the 42 shows broadcast between September 2009 and June 2010. This number may seem low for television, but in comparison with visitor numbers at museums it represents a far greater reach.
The programmes on TVE experienced on the whole a strong decline in viewer numbers following the fall of the public television monopoly in 1990. Metrópolis was likewise affected by the drop in ratings, but stability soon returned, and last year a modest rise in viewers could even be observed. And this despite the availability of the programmes on the Internet since 2008.
Website as platform for audience interaction
Metrópolis has had its own website since 1999 (www.metropolis.tve.es), with detailed background information on the programmes, including photos. Net art is also published and archived here, updated at regular intervals. Since June 2008 the latest shows can also be viewed on the Internet. The programmes are available in full length as streaming video for seven days after being broadcast.
The website is constantly updated and the online offerings expanded. In November 2009 a calendar of selected exhibitions, festivals and events was added, updated every 14 days. There is also a page of information on competitions and one with recommended literature. Since these additions, Metrópolis can also be found on Facebook and enjoys a far-flung fan community, especially in Spain and Latin America. On the Metrópolis blog, viewers can chat with the show’s editors.
To mark the programme’s 25th anniversary in April and the 1001th show, broadcast in February (“1001 noches con Metrópolis”, 2010) a survey was launched asking viewers about their personal connections with Metrópolis and their favourite shows, among other questions. A selection of the resulting texts was used in the “1001 noches” show and the four programmes receiving the most votes were televised again in April.
As a gift to the fan community and all the museums and educational institutions which had long wished to have the collected Metrópolis programmes available, a Web archive is now being put together in which 50 historical instalments can already be viewed. The archive is to be supplemented each quarter with 25 additional shows.
The originally planned birthday party for the show had to be cancelled due to the current economic crisis and the resulting budget cuts at the television station. The situation was exacerbated further by a change in radio and television policy. An amendment that went into effect in Spain at the beginning of the year disengages the financing of public television networks from advertising income, similar to the practice in France. At that time there was even talk of discontinuing the Metrópolis programme.
Currently, it looks as though Metrópolis has once again survived the crisis, albeit at the cost of a few compromises – for example, the prices paid for purchased films had to be lowered (€100 instead of the former €150/minute). The editors at Metrópolis however see things realistically and even with some optimism. Asked about the future, chief editor María Pallier says: “At the moment no one can say which programme will survive these difficult times and what TVE will look like in future. At any rate, we are planning to celebrate our 27th anniversary really grandly – a number we like better anyway and that also fits in better with Metrópolis’s individualistic stance and outsider status.”