The WNET Group Mourns the Passing of Jac Venza, Public Television Pioneer & “Great Performances” Creator

Visionary leader whose life’s work established public television as the home for performing arts

NEW YORK, May 31, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — Award-winning public television pioneer Jac Venza passed away this week at the age of 97. Using the power of television, Venza achieved international recognition for America’s leading performing artists as creator and Executive Producer of preeminent PBS performing arts television series Great Performances. His work on the series inspired audiences nationwide and jumpstarted the careers of countless actors and performers.

Neal Shapiro, The WNET Group President & CEO, said, “Jac was a true pioneer. Whenever I spoke with him, he was both proud of what WNET accomplished when he was here and also proud of all the great work that followed.”

Jac Venza was born in Chicago in 1926 to an Italian immigrant shoemaker. He ventured to New York in the 1940s to study with noted theatrical designers, and soon found himself in demand at high-end stores and restaurants for window design. A lover of musical theater, the first Broadway musical he saw was Kiss Me, Kate: “It was a wonderfully designed show,” he told Playbill in 2003. “It inspired me.” Lured into the world of media production, Venza took a job with CBS in 1950, where he would stay for the next 12 years. In 1964, Venza took a leap to executive produce cultural programs at National Educational Television (NET), which would later become The WNET Group, home of New York’s flagship PBS station THIRTEEN. Venza explained his vision for producing plays, concerts, and ballet to The New York Times in 1982:

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

Under the umbrella title of the award-winning Great Performances, Venza launched national productions Theater in America and Dance in America. These laid the groundwork for the diverse presence of worldwide drama, opera, music and dance programming that PBS airs today. Apart from Great Performances, Venza was also involved in the creation of the American drama anthology series American Playhouse (1982). In 1997, Venza became Director of Cultural and Arts Programs, a position he held until his retirement in 2004. During that time, he expanded art history, culture and understanding on THIRTEEN with Robert Hughes’ eight-part American Visions (1997) on the history of American art; introduced theater showcase Stage on Screen with a live broadcast of The Man Who Came to Dinner starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart from the Roundabout Theatre Company (2000); launched offbeat national arts series EGG the arts show (2000); and executive produced Broadway: The American Musical, a chronicle of the American musical theater from the turn of the century to today’s multi-million dollar extravaganzas (2004). Venza was also executive producer for Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (1998) and I’ll Make Me A World: A Century of African-American Arts (1999).

“Besides all the accolades from a long and distinguished career, most importantly Jac had a keen eye for finding and developing young producing talent,” said David Horn, current Great Performances executive producer. “From the moment I first worked for Jac in 1979, he was not only an incredible mentor to me, but I saw firsthand the many creative talents he brought to Great Performances in all aspects of creating cultural film and television. I will truly miss his sage advice.”

Throughout his career, Venza established relationships with icons like dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, playwright Tennessee Williams, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, and camera-shy George Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet. He even gave Meryl Streep her first on-screen job (Secret Service) and The Mark Morris Dance Group its first national television exposure in 1986 on Dance in America. Wendy Wasserstein famously credits her playwriting career to Venza, who broadcast her first play, Uncommon Women and Others, on Great Performances.

Venza has been honored with a Personal Peabody Award, 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Governors Award for Lifetime Achievement, the International Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the New York Emmy chapter’s Silver Circle Award, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ralph Lowell Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions and achievements to public media. Until 2010, Venza held the Emmy Award record for the most nominations for an individual with 57 nominations.

About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; newsroom NJ Spotlight News; and FAST channel PBS Nature. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment, and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs like NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for more than 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding, and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


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