Arts broadcasting: BBC's position comes under threat

The BBC's pre-eminence as an arts broadcaster is under threat from Artsworld. And with HDTV, the BSkyB channel is about to raise the stakes even further. By James Silver
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If asked to guess which UK television channel recently marked Mozart's 250th Birthday by running a live feed of Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and commissioned a 10-part documentary series on the National Trust, most people would be likely to point to the publicly-funded BBC4. In fact, it was Artsworld, the unabashedly highbrow arts channel from BSkyB.

This month Artsworld becomes one of a batch of Sky services - which also includes Sky Sports, Sky Movies 1 and 2, Sky Box Office and Sky One, as well as National Geographic and Discovery - to be broadcast in high definition (HD) format. Art freaks and culture vultures with cash to spare can buy the Sky HD box for £299 and pay £10 per month on top of their current subscriptions to receive it.

If this all sounds rather pricey, it's unlikely that the channel's upmarket audience will have difficulty stumping up the money. According to channel manager John Cassy, Artsworld, which claims to broadcast twice as many hours of arts programming in a week as all the terrestrial channels air in a month, has "arguably the wealthiest audience on TV". He says: "You only have to look at our database of who subscribed [when it was a subscription-only channel]. There were lots of lords and ladies and large estates out in the shires. "

Cassy, 38, says HD will transform arts broadcasting. "It's just fantastic for what we do. Things like opera, classical music and ballet come alive in HD, the picture quality and Dolby 5.1 surround sound for music is just that quantum better. It's like being there rather than watching it on TV. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up."

Cassy - who cheerfully admits to having seen only two operas before joining the channel, but now says he's a convert - argues that Artsworld serves a small but passionate niche audience which can reach about 35,000 for big opera productions or classical music events, and is currently largely overlooked by BBC TV and the other terrestrial channels. "The fact that we are doing what we are doing shows there is an appetite which is not being satisfied elsewhere. There isn't enough arts on the BBC. Our viewers come to us because they are disappointed by what is on elsewhere. BBC4, which I have a lot of admiration for, does some fantastic things. And given how well resourced they are, so they should. But they are not an arts channel. They do political stuff, documentaries. In terms of hours committed to the arts we do so much more than those guys."

So does he think the corporation, which is routinely accused of ghettoising its TV arts coverage, fails to serve its audience? Cassy, a former Guardian business journalist with a hack's instinct for what a quote will look like in cold print, deftly sidesteps the issue. "I'd rather not be drawn into saying anything like that... They have their aims, we have ours." Similarly, he won't reveal his annual programming budget. "We don't disclose our budgets. It would be fair to say it is significantly less than BBC4's annual budget [about £41m], stressing the word "significantly". Like many digital channels, it's a very different environment from the BBC." Nor does he accept the idea that Sky is an unlikely home for a highbrow arts channel. "I can see why people are intrigued that Sky is doing it. But there's a lot more to Sky than sport and movies. The big challenge for us is to grow awareness of Artsworld. A lot of people that we're trying to reach don't yet know enough about us or even know that we exist."

Artsworld's story is a cautionary one, revealing the perils of running a stand-alone niche TV station in the multi-channel era. Launched in 2000 by, among others, the Channel 4 founder Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the channel was a subscription-only business which soon floundered. BSkyB rode to the rescue, buying a 50-per-cent stake of the channel in 2003 before taking full ownership last summer.

Artsworld's co-founder John Hambley, who is also chairman of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasters Group, applauds Sky for saving the channel. "I'm not an apologist for Sky by any means, particularly not some of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, but if Sky had been invented by Sir Richard Branson it would be regarded as a great British success story. I'm really pleased to see it is continuing to run the kind of channel we started. Artsworld was set up because its founders noticed that the BBC was doing less arts and music, nobody else ever did very much and we thought there was room for this kind of channel. The problem with the economics is that it's very hard to run a subscription channel in this highly competitive world." The arrival of BBC4, he suggests, shattered Artsworld's viability. "When we started the business, we didn't realise that the BBC would be given vast amounts of public money to expand its own already very large range of channels. "

Hambley is rather less shy than Cassy at taking the BBC to task for what he sees as its "inadequate" coverage of the arts. "I think the BBC is neglecting the arts wholly on BBC1 and 2," he declares. "BBC2 appears to do more darts than arts. When the BBC starts spending as much money on the arts as it does on sport and puts as many hours on its mainstream channels, I think then you can call it a public service broadcaster as far as the arts and classical music are concerned. Of course if you look at its radio services, it is much, much better."

The number of hours aside, what exactly does Artsworld do better in his view? "One of the things it does is to broadcast unadulterated artistic performances of various kinds, whether it's opera or music. The BBC loves getting lots of intellectuals sitting round a table talking about things you and I haven't seen. What Artsworld does, in general, is just show you the stuff."