Ian Burrell: The old master at the heart of the renaissance at Sky Arts

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The Independent Online

Ronnie Wood is as handy with a brush as he is with a plectrum and his paintings can sell for £1m. But do his abilities as a guitarist alone qualify him to be regarded as a figurehead of the arts?

In an era where anyone with a public profile is quickly deemed to be a "celebrity", broadcasters must tread carefully to avoid being criticised for ditching high culture in favour of ratings-friendly shows about the rich and famous. And that's especially true of a broadcaster that is trying to win a reputation as the new champion of the arts.

Which is why Sky Arts has chosen a two-pronged approach to its coverage and exploited the fact that is has two channels to fill with cultural content. On Sky Arts 2 you might find Placido Domingo in Tamerlano, or Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. But the lead channel, Sky Arts 1, is largely characterised by "what is pejoratively called 'dad rock'", says Sky Arts director James Hunt. So when Sky Arts gets transformed this week with a trebling of its budget and a new position high up the programme guide (it's available on Sky, Virgin Media and Tiscali, but not Freeview), the former Rolling Stones and Faces guitarist will be at the heart of the offering, interviewing his chums. Wood was hired because of his award-winning show on Absolute Radio. "With every guest there's a wealth of stories that you've never heard before," says Hunt. "It's a template for Sky Arts. We don't scratch the surface but get behind the workings of the clock. That's what his show does. It's mesmerising."

Sky Arts will also position itself as the home of the music festival, taking advantage of a summer when the BBC is shorn of Glastonbury, which is taking a year out. Last week Sky executives were planning up to six hours coverage a day of the Isle of Wight festival, all in 3D. The channel has built a portfolio of 13 festivals including Download, Lovebox and Hard Rock Calling – an event almost every weekend over the summer.

It acquired the Cambridge Folk Festival when the BBC relinquished television rights (it still broadcasts the event on Radio 2). Hunt says Cambridge was Sky Arts' second most-watched festival last year, after the Isle of Wight. "Folk is not as big audience as dad rock but they're passionate," he says. "We are not ashamed to have people that are under-served by [terrestrial broadcasters]."

Live opera has also provided an opportunity. "We are very happy every Monday evening to put out live uninterrupted operas because there are 30,000-50,000 people out there who want this stuff and can't get it anywhere else," says Hunt. "We don't chase overnight ratings. We look at the overall reach the channel has."

Sky, once criticised for its failure to invest in original British shows, is spending £600m on fresh content. Hunt's channel is receiving more of that budget and he says it is recognised as one of "four pillars" of Sky's entertainment portfolio, with Sky One, Sky Living and Sky Atlantic.

When BSkyB bought the ArtsWorld channel (founded by the former Channel 4 chief executive Jeremy Isaacs) in 2007, many observers saw it as a classic, cynical Murdoch strategy to counter the carping of the chattering classes and attract subscribers who had not been engaged by an offering based on football and Hollywood movies.

But thanks to Hunt and his predecessor John Cassy, it has won a reputation for innovation in arts television and gained the confidence of institutions which, frankly, would rather have been working with the BBC. It offered the first live televised preview of an arts exhibition (Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery), and simulcast it from 41 cinemas to promote the brand. It screened the first live theatre in Britain for 35 years, an idea suggested by Sandi Toksvig. As well as music festivals, Sky Arts covers four literary ones. It broadcasts for 30 hours from Hay, rather than the minimalist coverage of the previous broadcast partner, Channel 4. Melvyn Bragg and his Director's Cut production company were persuaded to give Sky Arts the South Bank Show, which Hunt describes as "the world's leading television arts brand" and which had been axed by ITV after more than 30 years.

New shows this year include a four-part documentary on the photographer Richard Young, made by the film-maker and musician Don Letts. It will examine iconic shots taken by Young of subjects including Kate Moss, Vivienne Westwood and Tracey Emin. Once again, the channel is stepping into the grey area where the arts and celebrity collide. But Hunt sees his channel as responding to a growing public hunger for intelligent material, reflected in the growth of literary festivals, book clubs and debating events. "It couldn't be clearer that this is not a fig leaf channel," he says. "We are taking it dead seriously."

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