Producer Who Transformed Public Television Was 97

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Jac Venza, who was a key to helping American television in the 1960s and ’70s transform into a bastion of top-notch cultural programming, including Great Performances and Live From Lincoln Center, died May 28 at his home in Lyme, Connecticut. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by his spouse, Daniel D. Routhier.

Venza was working as a television producer when he was asked to collaborate with other innovators assembled by the Ford Foundation in the early 1960s. Their goal was to transform a limited service into National Educational Television, which later became the Public Broadcasting Service.

Venza pushed a simple concept for bringing high art to the masses: “Why don’t we entertain them, too?”

He introduced NET Playhouse, Theater in America, Live From Lincoln Center, Great Performances” and, at the suggestion of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dance in America. He also imported popular BBC productions like Brideshead Revisited.

His collaborations included choreographers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, composers like Leonard Bernstein ,and playwrights like Tennessee Williams. Dustin Hoffman had his first starring role on television in a 1966 NET production of Ronald Ribman’s play, The Journey of the Fifth Horse. Meryl Streep appeared onscreen for the first time in the William Gillette play, Secret Service on Great Performances.

Before he retired in 2004, Venza and the programs he produced for WNET, the PBS flagship station, received 57 Emmy nominations, a record not surpassed until 2010, the station said. He won 10 Primetime Emmys, an International Emmy for lifetime achievement, and a Governor’s Award, also for lifetime achievement.

In 1997, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting presented him with the Ralph Lowell Award for outstanding achievements.

In addition to Routhier, Venza is survived by nieces and nephews. His sister, Eileen Mitchell, died earlier.

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