06 Aug, 2009

Are we getting the arts TV we deserve?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Cultural broadcasting is changing faster than ever before. What do we want it to look like?

A few years back I wrote a blog piece about the state of arts TV. I was in a sour mood: I’d been watching old instalments of Arena on the BBC’s trial online archive and I’d just come back from a Channel 4 event meant to be celebrating 25 years of the station’s arts coverage, but in fact (to my mind, anyway) confirming how bad things had got. “The overall message is this,” I concluded. “If you’re interested in anything we happen to call arts, don’t bother watching TV.”

But things are more complicated than I allowed, and anyway much has changed. Channel 4’s arts commissioning editor has left and still not been replaced. The Southbank Show will be no more. The BBC is in the process of opening its archive to everyone. News organisations and dance companies are making high-quality video for themselves. And a new interloper, Sky Arts – born from the ashes of the unlamented Artsworld – is getting plenty of attention. I was intrigued by Sky, whose coverage I caught at the Hay festival, and whose web feed from the plinth I’ve been dipping in to. I’d been dimly aware of the channel but had never watched it, not least because I didn’t have a Sky box (still don’t). Their schedules seemed interesting – opera simulcast from both sides of the curtain, blimey – but would the programmes actually stand up to scrutiny? Would I be tempted to subscribe, and enter the clammy embrace of Rupert Murdoch?

Yes and no. No and yes. I’ve watched my way through many hours of Sky’s and others’ output, and talked to people from various sides of the fence. There’s lots I wish I’d had space to include – the history of cultural broadcasting, the evolving role of the web, the question of whether “arts” output really exists – and no doubt there are many things I’ve missed. Some I was surprised to learn: one producer told me straight out that books didn’t make good TV; others darkly referred to the simmering suspicion about producing theatre on TV (who knew?). I’m nearly 30, part of that unlucky generation whose first exposure to arts television was a Carmelite nun standing in front of Goya, to whom the Southbank Show already seemed long past its best. There’s so much I wish I’d been able to see: Monitor, Ways of Seeing, Face to Face, Pina Bausch and The Mysteries on Channel 4. A brief stint on BBC4 and a few Youtube clips aside, until I dragged myself out to Sky’s studios in Osterley last month, I don’t think I’d ever seen live theatre on TV, and barely seen telly about theatre at all.

But I didn’t want my article to be a jeremiad about the state of arts TV: we’ve had plenty of those over the years. In any case it’d be unfair. Simply in terms of hours broadcast, the arts in all their forms, from Picasso to Banksy, Port Eliot to Glastonbury, are covered more extensively than at any point in British history. After years where the BBC seemed terrified of being slagged off as highbrow, the corporation seems to have relocated its cultural mojo: the poetry season has been a triumph, and there’s plenty to get excited about this autumn. At Channel 4, which is facing immense questions about its future, signals are more mixed: yes, there are triumphs like Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which began as a Channel 4 arts commission, but elswhere the channel seems to have got caught in a cycle of reality shows vaguely to do with culture (Operatunity plus Musicality equals Ballet Changed My Life; Grand Designs crossed with Ground Force equals The Big Art Project). I don’t doubt that they encourage new audiences to get involved in the arts – I just wish there was more, or at least more variety.

The big question, I think, is this: am I in a minority? Mainstream broadcasters reckon I am, which is why they’ve been so reluctant to cater for me for the past 15 years. As specialist channels settle down and linear broadcasting heads towards the sunset, maybe that period’s finally at an end. But there’s little point in having TV any time you want if none of it’s actually worth watching (and even I might get a little tired of Monitor reruns). That means mainstream broadcasters continuing to invest, but it also means they need to get smarter, whether that’s doing deals with little galleries and dance companies or getting in to bed with commercial rivals. It means other broadcasters – and the Guardian’s in this too – getting more collegiate about the way we behave. It means artists being open-minded about rights and intellectual property. It means new producers getting excited about the possibilities of arts broadcasting, not just in TV or radio but in all kinds of forms on the web.

More: it means not being sniffy about Sky, or writing them off as fringe. Yes, they’re a small broadcaster, catering to small subscription audiences, but they’ve got some big ideas. We’d all do well to watch them.

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