Arts programming on television looks to be in rude health. With the launch of Sky's second dedicated arts channel in October, the BBC ramping up its arts output and ITV's South Bank Show maintaining viewing figures in the face of greater competition than ever, high culture aficionados seemingly have an extensive menu from which to sate their appetites.
In fact, the picture is more complicated than that. While the hardcore fans are well served by the dedicated arts channels BBC4 and Sky Arts, the general viewing public is actually a little starved, "making do" with staples such as The Culture Show (BBC2, attracting 600,000 viewers) and ITV's The South Bank Show (watched by up to two million). Times are becoming harder for commercial broadcasters as advertising revenues fall, so the mantra "less is more" becomes more applicable than ever. That means focusing on the big-name series, even if that brings a decline in quantity overall.
In the short term, at least, there are things to look forward to. On BBC1 early next year, Jeremy Paxman will explore his love for one of Britain's most inspiring periods in The Victorians. On BBC2, The Birth of British Music will please lovers of classical music, with full performances of Handel's Acis and Galatea and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. On niche channels, there's Baroque on BBC4, exploring the importance and impact of the first global art movement, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.
"I think arts television is thriving," says Adam Kemp, the BBC's commissioning editor for arts, performance and religion. "I think there's a lot of confusion out there from critics, many of whom think it is declining. The truth is that the BBC accounts for 85 per cent of all arts output on British television. People are lamenting the retreat of broadcasters from music and arts and culture and they wrongly infer that the BBC is part of that. But, in fact, it is stronger than ever."
Over on Sky, the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadcaster doubled its arts output in October. It now transmits its programmes through Sky Arts 1 (which focuses on contemporary art, rock concerts, documentaries and the lovely Mariella Frostrup) and Sky Arts 2, which provides opera, classical music and dance. Recent programmes have included a series of productions from the New York Metropolitan Opera, a four-part Selina Scott-fronted series about the painter Edward Seago, as well as White Cube's Tim Marlow explaining the work of Francis Bacon.
Sophie Turner Laing, Sky's managing director of entertainment, falls short of saying there is more "high art" programming out there than ever, but she believes the broader sphere of "entertainment" is thriving. "I would question what people traditionally term as high culture and what is low," she says. "That is a terminology many of us have grown up with. But arts is arts, and it is an incredibly broad church. What we should be doing is highlighting every corner, and that I would call entertainment, the marriage of the highbrow and the lowbrow. Art is personal. If you are a Queen fan, that is your 'high art'."
Channel 4 is also flying the flag for cutting-edge arts output. This week, it broadcast the presentation of the Turner Prize (won by Mark Leckey), Britain's foremost showcase for contemporary art. Channel 4's Big Art Project gives the public the opportunity to view the commissioning of public art, getting involved at the grass roots.
However, the media regulator Ofcom still believes that the terrestrial broadcasters need to provide more arts coverage. An Arts Council review of public-service broadcasting in arts in 2005 saw that BBC1's arts coverage fell by one-third between 2002 and 2005. While the arts sector "at large" has improved throughout the country, reflected by the soaring prices of art at auction, this has not necessarily been reflected by broadcasters. Any cursory look across the terrestrial television schedules over the past 15 years will show that arts coverage has declined, and shows such as Imagine and The South Bank Show are generally shown late at night – hardly peak-time viewing. And, while Sky Arts provides a fair number of programmes, its audiences are in the thousands, not millions. The onus should fall on the terrestrial channels to provide arts coverage for education purposes, not its commercial rivals.
The fact of the matter is that the BBC would certainly like to do more. "We, like everyone else, are doing what we can," continues Kemp. "We didn't get the licence fee we wanted. And, I have to tell you, we really do still transmit vast quantities of arts and cultural programmes. The 'fewer, bigger, better' approach is not a bad discipline. It makes you concentrate on stuff that really counts. Just pick up the Radio Times any day of the week and look at what we are providing. It is not the case that we have retreated from arts coverage."
Those at the Arts Council maintain that it is too early to say what the future holds. "I think Sky Arts launching a second channel was a good thing for arts coverage, but that was all planned before the current economic downturn," Kemp says. "But, while they are gradually building up their fan base, their viewing figures are still quite low. They do have a good track record, but it's also about quality of experience, too. Look at Richard and Judy since they have moved off Channel 4 to a cable channel. Their viewership has gone from millions to tens of thousands. That means that Richard and Judy's Book Club is not going to have the impact it had, too, which makes it less culturally relevant.
"My hunch is that the credit crunch won't have much of an effect," Kemp continues. "In terms of ticket sales, a lot of the big national companies sell a lot of tickets well in advance. If you look at the historical evidence, during the Great Depression in the 1920s cinema had its golden age. The arts can thrive. One thing is sure, though – arts organisations are going to be taking opportunities through broadcasting more and more."
Heavy metal to Mahler: the best on the box
The flagship culture programme for BBC1, 'Imagine' seeks to unearth the extraordinary and the fascinating in the arts. This week, Alan Yentob travelled to Baghdad to meet Acrassicauda, the only heavy metal band in Iraq.
The Culture Show (BBC2)
A far cry from stuffy people talking about highbrow arts, this programme has an edgier feel to it, with pop music and the young DJ Lauren Laverne and respected film and arts critic Mark Kermode hosting. The programme's stock continues to grow, leading to the coups of interviews with Angelina Jolie talking about her new film, 'Changeling', and Kanye West.
The Book Show (Sky Arts 1)
The evergreen presenter and journalist Mariella Frostrup presents the literary programme, where A-list authors discuss their favourite bedtime reading, booksellers recommend choices for book clubs, and insiders from the publishing industry, such as agents and editors, provide handy hints for getting work published. Recent authors on the show have ranged from Maureen Lipman and Philippa Gregory to Will Self and Alastair Campbell.
From the Basement (Sky Arts 1)
The show's tenet is simple – unadulterated performances from those at the forefront of the music world, with no presenter, no audience and no background noise. The show is enhanced by the laid-back, indie cellar setting, which offers good acoustics. Future highlights include the notoriously elusive Radiohead and the rock legends Iggy and The Stooges.
Classical concerts on BBC4
The next in the series takes place tonight (7.30pm): Valery Gergiev will be conducting Mahler's Sixth Symphony. The renowned maestro leads the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's nihilistic 'Tragische', from the fantastic setting of the Barbican in London.