Bread and circuses - and high culture

Sky is branching out from imported comedy and reality TV. This week it took over the Artsworld channel, and it plans to bring the arts to the masses
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The Independent Online

Full-length operas, ballet and classical music are to be the latest weapon in BSkyB's battle for viewers. Yesterday, the pay-TV giant, which built its business on Premiership football and Hollywood blockbusters, took over the TV channel Artsworld. More significant - both for viewers and the arts world - than the change in ownership, however, is Sky's pledge to make it available to most of its 7.7 million subscribers free of charge.

Artsworld is a trump card - if an unlikely one - for Sky. It was launched in 2000 by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, former chief executive of Channel 4 and former director general of the Royal Opera House, and John Hambley, one-time chairman of the Greater London Arts Association (now the London Arts Board) and former managing director of Thames Television, who led the successful Channel 5 franchise bid, with backing from a group of private shareholders. The mission was to provide arts coverage unavailable elsewhere on British TV.

"When we started," Hambley says, we wanted to be a cheerleader for the arts in the UK. We didn't want critics sitting round discussing what you probably haven't seen, in often pejorative terms. We wanted to put things on for the audience and allow viewers to make up their own minds."

Five years on, Artsworld is still widely regarded as filling a gap unserved by any other channel in the market. True, arts and culture play an important role at BBC4, but, the BBC is quick to stress, BBC4 is not and never has been an arts channel. From launch, Artsworld's commitment to an eclectic - often high-brow - mix of arts from around the world gave it an elitist reputation in some circles. But the arts world embraced it with open arms. "An absolutely brilliant channel: wonderful and courageous," is the view of Victoria Todd, director of the National Campaign for the Arts. "It has touched nerve-endings that the BBC has long forgotten in its arts programming."

For example, Artsworld broadcasts hours of classical music each week, with a regular Thursday-night concert. Extensive opera coverage includes a weekly performance - this week, the 2002 La Scala staging of Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah, starring Placido Domingo. There's a weekly ballet, and modern dance has a high profile, along with literary documentaries, world film and theatre.

Audience numbers and advertising revenue have always been modest. Current estimates put the total number of Artsworld subscribers in the low hundreds of thousands - exact figures are not published. And with just two and a half minutes of advertising carried each hour, commercial revenue is limited - to say the least - in comparison with the channel's costs.

Even so, Artsworld has an important strategic role to play in the plans of Sky's chief executive, James Murdoch, to change perceptions of Sky among potential subscribers and politicians. "Artsworld occupies a unique space in television broadcasting," Dawn Airey, managing director of Sky Networks, explains. "Its distinctive schedule will enrich Sky's channel package and support our drive to bring a wider choice of viewing to even more customers."

Sky, a non-investment partner at launch and 50 per cent shareholder since 2003, sees Artsworld as a highly aspirational channel for Sky subscribers. Which is why it is quick to stress that although it is keen to broaden the channel's reach, it is in no hurry to dilute its programming. "It will remain a dedicated arts and cultural channel, entirely focused on providing high-quality, distinctive programming," a company spokesman insists.

Interest in the arts is growing, and for a significant proportion of the viewing public, having an arts channel as part of Sky's basic, family package, rather than as a premium add-on, might make the difference in their decision whether to subscribe to Sky, he adds.

Cassy points to Sky and Artsworld's joint sponsorship of English National Opera and English National Ballet as proof of Sky's on-going commitment to the arts. "Our vision is to bring the best of the arts to a wider audience," he says.

Under a new initiative called Sky Seats, ENO - which Sky/Artsworld is sponsoring for £3m over three years - is selling 12,000 dress circle tickets for just £20 each, a £25 saving. After this week's announcement, Cassy is planning further commercial partnerships - especially with arts organisations outside London. "Looking ahead, one of the most exciting prospects is the development of creative initiatives in partnership with arts organisations, to grow their audiences by getting their arts out into a bigger arena," he explains.

Last weekend, for example, Artsworld staged and recorded a series of Q&A sessions with authors at the Althorp literary festival, which it will use as short programmes. "This sort of involvement is a great way for Artsworld to source new material that works well in between longer programmes such as ballets or plays," Cassy says.

Sky's upgraded commitment to Artsworld was welcomed by a number of leading arts figures, including ENO's artistic director and chief executive, Sean Doran, and the controller of BBC4, Janice Hadlow. "Any addition to the landscape of intelligent programmes is good news for all of us - programme-makers and arts fans alike," Hadlow says. "Although, as channels, we are not direct rivals, it's a development we will watch closely: any different competition sharpens the mind."

Whether Sky stays true to its pledge not to dilute the Artsworld formula as it strives to broaden its appeal remains to be seen. But Hambley, who is no longer directly involved in the channel, is optimistic. "It was always our ambition to make Artsworld more widely available as part of Sky's basic tier," he says. "And it was inevitable, even though our backers had deep pockets, that we would need an injection of cash from elsewhere, or else end up bumping along the bottom. When Chris Smith attended Artsworld's opening ceremony, he hailed the channel as something great for the arts in Britain. With this latest development in its history, I hope his words will come true."