Veering from the highbrow to the low-rent, Sky Arts is an odd channel—but, argues Peter Bazalgette, it is beginning to challenge BBC 2 and Channel 4’s cultural programmingby Peter Bazalgette / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
That other seventies show: the edgy HBO-style series Romanzo Criminale tells the story of Rome’s criminal gangs in the 1970s
During 2011’s febrile summer of phone hacking, something went almost unnoticed. As the Guardian and the BBC fought News Corp’s proposed takeover of BSkyB, what the company itself was doing excited little comment. BSkyB’s chief executive, Jeremy Darroch, announced that their annual spend on original television content was to almost double, from £380m to £600m. This is in addition to the billions they already spend on sports and movies. It means they’ll shortly be outspending the public service broadcaster, Channel 4, which has a budget of £578m and BBC2 with its annual £436m. One clear beneficiary of this uptick will be Sky Arts.
But who watches Sky Arts? Not many people at any given time—a typical evening audience would be 50-100,000, though Sky Arts claims to reach, over a month, about 2m viewers. The incentive for BSkyB to funnel tens of millions of pounds into a little-watched channel seems to stem, partly, from a commitment to the arts. But there is also the pressing need to keep subscribers on board. Historically Sky has relied on exclusive sport and movies. But with the growing popularity of online on-demand services their grip on movies looks like being loosened. By bolstering its arts coverage and introducing outlets like the HBO-import channel Sky Atlantic (home of shows like Treme and Boardwalk Empire) Sky hopes to make its content compelling and varied enough to hold onto subscribers who might be more tempted to spend their money on Netflix and Lovefilm.
At present, Sky Arts offers a mix of the ambitious, the high-minded and the low-rent, steadily cruising down the middle of the road whilst making regular stop-offs at more interesting destinations. In February Mike Figgis’s Lucrezia Borgia for ENO became the world’s first 3D opera on television. In July there was a visually stunning documentary about Norman Foster (we’ll overlook Deyan Sudjic’s rather precious voice-over). And this summer the channel has been covering a range of music festivals, from rock to classical to eastern music (the discovery of a late 19th-century Indian string quartet at the Darbar Festival in July was an unexpected pleasure). Sky Arts is also a rich source of rockumentaries—that growing branch of the heritage industry where greying, pony-tailed rockers recall what fun it all was. In “Birmingham—home of metal” we heard…