Anyone at home to the new arts slot?

BBC2 may have taken a risk by scheduling 'The Culture Show' as early as 7pm. Lucy Rouse reports

Scheduling programmes on a TV channel is like doing a jigsaw: each piece must fit exactly, with no gaps, to make an effective and pleasing whole. And when you've got a new programme to slot in, it's as if the jigsaw is finished but you've got to squeeze in another piece.

That is how BBC2 controller Roly Keating explains the apparently quirky decision to air his channel's new weekly Culture Show at 7pm, from Thursday. The show is an emphatic and, some would say, long overdue attempt to give the arts a place at the heart of BBC2's schedules, and will invite comparisons with the channel's ground-breaking late-night arts programme The Late Show, which built up a devoted audience in the 1980s and 1990s - and went out nightly.

The Culture Show won't be a recreation of that landmark, not least because it is weekly, and because of the time at which it goes out. At 7pm much of its likely audience, the metropolitan chattering classes, will still be travelling back from work. Many at home will be putting the kids to bed.

Keating points out that The Culture Show is a long-term commitment in TV terms with a continuous run of 20 weeks. So, to avoid moving anything else in the schedule, "We needed to open up a different slot." He insists: "There's a huge audience around at that time. Channel 4 is clearly open to intellectual business at 7pm with the news. Dan Cruickshank's series [Britain's Best Buildings, Mondays] at 7pm is getting 1.7 or 1.8 million viewers." In BBC2 terms, that's a sizeable audience, and suggests that it is only workaholics in major cities who can't start their evening's viewing until at least 9pm.

Keating inherited the plans for The Culture Show from his predecessor Jane Root (now working for Discovery in America. Its presenters - Mariella Frostrup, Verity Sharp, Andrew Graham-Dixon, and Kwame Kwei-Armah - are big or growing noises in their specialist fields, and Keating says he has carefully considered the programme's timing. For one thing, it will be repeated on the day of broadcast at 11.20pm. "We want to bracket the evening with it," says Keating. "We're confident the audience that comes to it at 11.20pm will be different from those who watch at 7pm." He points to repeat outings of Radio 4 shows such as Start the Week and The Choice as precedents.

The early evening slot could, however, limit the programme's coverage - although Keating plays this down. "Any pre-watershed show comes with certain rules. There's hardly any topic that can't be tackled. The full range of culture can be discussed, even if you have to be careful about how some things are illustrated."

What the 7pm showing will mean is a selective choice of clips and the possibility of bleeped strong language. But, Keating says, "I'd much rather pay that small price to have an audience of millions." Having been a founding editor of The Late Show, which was axed in 1996, he knows only too well how small an audience can be after 11pm.

The only remaining problem is a possible clash with Radio 4 arts show Front Row, on nightly at 7.15pm. "We discussed that," Keating admits. "There may be some audience overlap but it's not huge. There are differences between the two mediums, and the two shows are very different - Front Row is a daily page while The Culture Show is more like a weekly supplement."

Perhaps Keating would be better advised to cut back the swathes of lifestyle programming that inhabit BBC2 at 8pm and schedule The Culture Show then. Jocelyn Hay, chair of pressure group the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, certainly thinks the channel should have higher aspirations during the early evening. "We welcome the fact the BBC is bringing back a show focusing on culture but hope it will be an intelligent show," she says. "So many shows now, like the BBC2 cookery show Full on Food, appear patronising and afraid of including any challenge."

The problem of scheduling isn't confined to BBC 2. ITV's Harry Hill Show has been the focus of TV critics' campaigns to earn it a better slot. Ally Ross's column in The Sun was recently captioned with the slogan: "Show Harry earlier" whereas the Radio Times's television editor, Alison Graham has expressed surprise that Harry Hill's TV Burp is on at 5.30pm on Saturdays.

The production company behind Harry Hill is no stranger to the quirks of ITV's scheduling. Its Sketch Show, which ran for only two series on the network, was consistently shown at 10.30pm "for no reason at all" according to one Avalon insider. Although the programme is now being made for the US market, executives at Avalon wonder whether it would still be on air here in the UK if it had been given a better time slot.

Of all the broadcasters, the rabidly commercial ITV is particularly notorious for shifting programmes around the schedule if its viewing figures fall below expectations. Quiz show The Vault and property programme The Block are just the latest examples of programmes that were moved or axed completely after only a few episodes because they were watched by fewer than three million people.

Channel 4 has always had problems with The West Wing, a US import which is critically acclaimed but little watched. The first three series were moved later and later, but the fourth is now being shown on Fridays at 7.35pm, when the channel is just beginning to build its audience for the night. Hay suggests that someone, somewhere will complain whatever time a programme is put out. But because TV is a mass medium, the scheduling channels do try to please most of the people most of the time.