Why new arts channel faces a poor reception

A dedicated arts channel is just what multichannel TV needs. But with no in-depth listings magazine, interested viewers will find it hard to tune in, says Torin Douglas

What’s missing from this list? News, entertainment, sport, films, rock music, cartoons, drama, documentaries, comedy, travel, game shows, kids, teenagers, women, men, animals, education, science, history, geography, business, personal finance, religion, sex, football, Parliament, leisure, shopping and the Internet.

All the above have satellite TV channels devoted to them. It is getting hard to think of a major area of interest to the British public that doesn’t – except one. The arts.

More than ten years after the launch of multichannel television, there is still no satellite channel devoted to the arts. The one arts channel that does exist – Performance – is shown exclusively on cable, and even that was dropped 18 months ago by one of the big three operators, Cable & Wireless.

You might have thought that, in a world of 150 channels – supposedly offering greater television choice – the arts would have got a better showing – particularly since the greater competition in broadcasting seems to be squeezing arts programmes out of peaktime on the terrestrial channels.

Some thought the BBC – with its archive of concerts, operas, plays and classic dramas, not to mention its arts documentaries, profiles and review programmes – should have launched a digital arts channel to emphasise what public service broadcasting was all about. Indeed, some thought this was the original purpose of its pay-TV channel, UK Arena (a name lifted from the distinguished BBC2 arts strand) – but it never turned out that way and the channel has just been relaunched as UK Drama.

So let’s give a belated three cheers for Artsworld, a new digital channel to be launched on SkyDigital at the end of the year. Part-owned by BSkyB and the Guardian Media Group, and chaired by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, former head of Channel 4 and the Royal Opera House, its pedigree is good. One of the project’s founders was the late Richard Dunn, former head of Thames Television. Artsworld’s chief executive will be another Thames stalwart, John Hambley, who led the successful bid for Channel 5. Bob Phillis of GMG will be a non-executive director.

Artsworld claims to be the UK’s first digital arts channel – a statement disputed by Performance, which says it is already viewed in digital cable homes and will be in many more before the end of the year. What’s not in dispute is that Artsworld will be an à la carte premium subscription service (probably priced at £5.99 a month), embracing the whole world of the arts – not just classical music, opera, dance and visual art but also antiques, architecture, books, collecting, cinema, design, jazz, theatre and (perhaps surprisingly) travel.

“There is an audience for the arts on TV,” says Isaacs. “We shall show as many arts programmes as all of British terrestrial TV put together, bringing The Met and La Scala to the living room.”

Isaacs and Hambley won’t reveal their budget or audience targets, but concede that the audience will be small. Bob Linton, general manager of Performance, part of the Associated Newspapers empire, wishes them well but wonders how many viewers will be prepared to pay a premium subscription: “Performance is in the basic package offered to cable subscribers. The question is whether Artsworld can put together a programme package that will persuade enough people to pay a premium.”

Artsworld may have another problem – letting its viewers know when its programmes are on. For Sky has just relaunched its monthly magazine for digital customers, carefully removing the programme listings and daily highlights. It lists the sports events and movies for May, but no schedules for other channels.

This is because, according to Sky, 73 per cent of Sky digital viewers say they use the on-screen electronic programme guide “all the time” as their main source of listings information.

Obviously this 73 per cent has no interest in planning its viewing, since the electronic page guide only lists programmes for the same day and the following day.

But many discerning viewers – such as those Artsworld will be aiming at – may want to do better than take pot luck, or simply watch different episodes of the same series, day after day. For example, viewers of UK Drama might care to know which dramas are being shown later in the week – apart from the 7pm daily fix of Tenko.

When I raised this at the launch news conference for Artsworld, Sir Jeremy Isaacs and Bob Phillis seemed slightly alarmed that their viewers would not be given programme information more than two days ahead. But Sky’s Elisabeth Murdoch immediately denied the listings had been dropped. “They’ve been put back!” she insisted, almost before I’d finished my question.

Obviously, I’d touched a nerve.

The following day I bumped into the Sky boss again. She was full of apologies. She’d checked – and discovered that they have put back the movie listings, but not those for individual channels. And it seems they are not going to.

When I passed this on to Artsworld, they were surprised and disappointed. What’s the point of bringing The Met and La Scala to people’s living rooms, if viewers get no warning they’ll be there? Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Listings.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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