Ian Burrell: The expansion of Sky Arts confirms that it isn't just a cultural fig leaf

Viewpoint: But Sky Arts has gained the confidence of institutions which would rather have been working with the BBC

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 it has two channels to fill with cultural content. On Sky Arts 2 you might find Placido Domingo in Handel's Tamerlano, or Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. 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 on Freeview), the Rolling Stone will be at the heart of the offering, interviewing his chums. Sky Arts has also positioned 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 in meetings planning up to six hours coverage a day of the Isle of Wight festival, all in 3D. The channel has assembled a portfolio of 13 festivals (including Download, Lovebox and Hard Rock Calling), which means it will have a live broadcast event almost every weekend throughout the summer.

When BSkyB bought the high-end Artsworld channel in 2007, many observers saw it as a classic and cynical Murdoch strategy for countering the carping of the chattering classes and attracting a new class of subscriber which had not been engaged by the previous offering based on football and Hollywood movies.

But Sky Arts 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 to 41 cinemas across the country to promote the brand. It screened the first original 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-on-Wye, rather than the minimalist coverage of its 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 a run lasting more than 30 years.

As part of a raft of new shows being launched on Sky Arts this year, the channel will show 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, we are taking it dead seriously."

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones