Forget Joan Collins - what about some arts on TV?

`Her artistic significance could be anatomised on the back of a postage stamp'
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The Independent Culture
THE STARK reality of terrestrial television's current attitude towards the arts was brought home to me on Monday night as I rummaged about in the listings guides looking for something to watch.

As ever, the mid-evening schedules were a welter of soaps, Delia Smith, the activities of the Los Angeles Police Department and East End villains who'd made it on to The Sunday Times's roster of the country's richest men. A BBC1 Omnibus feature on Mrs Gaskell - a flagrant plug for the dramatisation that had started the night before - looked promising. Until, that is, I discovered that it ended towards midnight. Call me a party- pooper, or even someone whose children will be bounding into the room at 6.45am the next morning, but it's just too late.

A bit intrigued by the notion that any TV arts programme worth watching has to be screened at a time when most people are going to bed - The South Bank Show now goes out at 11.15pm, thanks very much - I decided to do a little research. In a week of TV scheduling, what was there that any reasonably serious person interested in the arts could sit down and watch without wasting his or her time? For the purposes of definition, "arts programme" means, well, arts programme, rather than Happy Birthday Tina Turner, An Audience with the Bee Gees, or any of the other rubbish ITV puts out in the pretence that it is fulfilling its cultural remit.

One didn't expect very much from the commercial channels, and that is exactly what one got. The 168 hours beamed out by Channel 5 realised precisely nothing. ITV boasted the 65 minutes of The South Bank Show (in fact quite a decent-looking profile of the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli). Channel 4 was covering the Turner Prize. Pride of place, inevitably, went to BBC2, with about six-and-a-half hours - a couple of items about Renaissance paintings, live coverage of the reopening of the Royal Opera House, and a three-parter on the cultural significance of soap opera. And yet, of the 1,176 hours of television screened this week by the terrestrial companies, just under 10 hours - less than 1 per cent - had anything to do with the arts.

This, by the way, is not the traditional highbrow complaint occasionally levelled by the kind of person who thinks that BBC2 should consist simply of interviews with obscure foreign novelists or endless stagings of Fidelio. It is simply a statement of an incontrovertible fact: that no UK television channel, with the possible exception of BBC2, has the slightest interest in the arts. What there is, is screened at such obscure times as to wreck the chances of a worthwhile audience - with each year that passes The South Bank Show seems to be pushed forward another 15 minutes - and at the same time endlessly tweaked and reinvented by producers who are desperate not to be accused of elitism.

To give one example of this, a fortnight ago a whole hour of precious time in the show was lavished on an interview with Joan Collins, someone whose artistic significance could be anatomised on the back of a postage stamp.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this marginalisation better demonstrated than in television's attitude to books. As a professional writer, no doubt I'm biased, but it is still rather shocking to find that a television culture that has space for half a dozen weekly gardening programmes and the snouts- in-the-trough extravaganza of the lottery, cannot run to a single books programme. The tale of Bookworm, whose final series petered unwatched to a close a couple of weeks ago, is a good example of the BBC's ability to ignore the value of the things it does best. Bookworm started life five years ago as a Sunday tea-time feature. Here it attracted rousing audience figures - as many as nine million viewers at one point - and was supposedly smiled on by Alan Yentob. Then for some reason it got shifted to the highly enticing spot of 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening, making it impossible for most of the family audience the BBC wanted to watch it. Audiences declined to something over a million, and that was the end of that.

Coming from the commercial stations, this is about par for the course, but one expects a bit better from the BBC. Meanwhile, the relentless process of cultural disenfranchisement continues. Here I am, a culturally fixated late-thirty-something, bookish, interested in the visual and performing arts - and with occasional exceptions, there is nothing that would even induce me to switch on the television set. On the rare evenings when some Omnibus producer is given his head and told not to worry about doing something "difficult", the result will always be given the most obscure spot on the schedule.

The media pages this week have been full of TV chiefs smugly congratulating themselves on the viewing figures for flagship serials such as Wives and Daughters and Oliver Twist, as if this were somehow evidence of a responsible attitude to the arts. In fact, TV arts programming is a disgrace. The Secretary of State for Culture has already made some telling interventions in the wider cultural environment. He should turn his attention here, to a diminishing landscape that will soon consist of not much more than a handful of well-meaning BBC2 producers and the sight of Melvyn Bragg smiling into the small hours.