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 Noddy Holder on adenoidal guitar legends and elsewhere Trevor Horn popped up to talk about “Video Killed the Radio Star”—the first pop video MTV ever broadcast. That grizzled survivor, “Whispering” Bob Harris, even surfaced to host KT Tunstall in the series Songbook, in which songwriters explain the origins of their biggest hits. This was fairly conventional fare but enjoyable in a wet-afternoon sort of way.
As Sky Arts’ spend has risen, it has begun to commission drama too. Cutting its teeth on Chekhov’s one act plays, made by Steve Coogan’s production company, it has since invited leading actors to declaim Shakespeare’s best-known soliloquies in In Love with Shakespeare. And now it has a strand called Playhouse: Live, with original work by writers such as Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Mark Ravenhill and Frank McGuiness. All of these have the theatrical feel of 1960s television drama at a time when most telly fiction now has movie production values. Some might find this old-fashioned, but they have a certain retro-chic for those of us who remember Armchair Theatre in the 1960s.
Among the opera, rockumentaries and television plays, there are of course some real duds. The Art of Survival, a new reality show, was probably invented after an over-liquid lunch. Three musicians and an artist are meant to busk their way from Greece to Edinburgh. Not even Roger McGough’s commentary, in his most appealing “poetry-please” voice, can save this turkey. Beware shows that start by saying: “But there’s a catch…”
But for anyone persuaded that Sky Arts is worth a visit there are some promising series coming up this autumn. A second outing of the ingenious Fame in the Frame is just starting. The former art forger, John Myatt paints celebrity guests into old masters of their choice: Terry Gilliam opts to infiltrate Redon’s The Buddha while Ian Hislop invades Hogarth’s The Painter and his Pug. This bizarre concept doesn’t lead to many aesthetic insights, but the quality of the guests, the odd setting and the rascally host make for engaging conversations. The channel has also acquired the cult hit drama from Sky Italia, Romanzo Criminale. Based on the book and film about Rome’s criminal gangs in the 1970s, the modish HBO-style series transferred to network TV in Italy, where, like many an HBO show, it has found a big audience on DVD.
By sponsoring Sky Arts Ignition bursaries to promising artists, taking over the South Bank Show Awards and covering everything from architecture to fashion, literature to art and opera to rock there is only one way to describe what Sky Arts is doing: public service broadcasting. Who would have thought it? A company 39 per cent owned by Murdoch Inc is beginning to rival the BBC in its contribution to culture.