A sweet spot in the history of arts TV
How can content-rich arts organisations engage with broadcasters and indies as convergence gathers pace and pressure on funding intensifies?
It's a question that numerous conferences, consultants and public institutions have posed for several years now, but could the time finally be fit for an explosion of new creative partnerships? Television leaders and professionals speaking at the recent Arts TV Forum in Gateshead (presented by Northern Film & Media and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art) supported the theory.
"Arts is the canary in the mine of broadcasting. If the canary is alive and singing, it tells us that TV as a whole is in good shape – it certainly feels like we are at a sweet spot in the history of arts TV," said media commentator Maggie Brown, chair of the conference, setting the tone for debate in the opening remarks.
It's a fair comment. Solid viewing figures, increased broadcaster investment, new distribution platforms such as The Space, and the rise of channel-backed arts initiatives like Sky's Ignition programme all seem to lend weight to Brown's positive outlook.
James Hunt, director of Sky Arts was excited by the emergence of the channel as a key arts TV player since its launch ten years ago. "In the early days, we were attracting around 220,000 viewers a week. We're now reaching over 2 million," he said, rejecting recent criticism by BBC director general George Entwistle that Sky pours its marketing budget into programming that draws only 5,000 viewers.
He was unflummoxed by Entwistle's critique. "We're thrilled to be on George Entwistle's radar... we're investing around £1.6m a year on high-profile UK arts projects and supporting young artists through our Futures Fund. We're working collaboratively with arts organisations and high-profile on-screen talent to realise some fantastic content – we've even been moved up the EPG."
A positive assessment from Osterley, but what of Hunt's west London neighbours at the BBC? "We're still the UK's largest producer of arts programming and continue to attract a huge international audience... contrary to popular belief, we do take creative risks," said BBC commissioner Mark Bell, defending the BBC's commitment to the arts and creative record. On-screen talent continues to define broadcaster approach to arts programming, with remit considerations defining the strategies of the channels.
Confirming that arguably the arts TV find of the year, Grayson Perry, will return to the screen next year following a critically-acclaimed three-part series that drew around 600,000 viewers per episode, Channel 4's Tabitha Jackson put the success down to Perry's ability to "speak English, rather than art". Bold commissioning decisions such as In the Best Possible Taste can be added to the channel's emerging scrapbook of creative renewal success stories.
Digital vs linear arts TV
Back at the BBC, Bell was upbeat about The Space – the £2.5m pilot digital arts collaboration between the corporation and Arts Council England: "The Space is a worthwhile and interesting project adding richness and variety to arts TV – I'm really excited by the potential for The Space to become a seedbed for discovering new talent."
But is The Space, which will see a further £8m of investment in its next iteration, a threat to the arts on linear TV channels? Not so, according to Tabitha Jackson, Channel 4's arts commissioning editor. "The Space is an entirely complementary addition to the arts TV landscape and is a learning tool for arts organisations who want a better understanding of the editorial decision making of broadcasters," she said. "It also shows what can be achieved on relatively small budgets – Globe Theatre successfully produced 37 outside broadcasts of Shakespeare's plays for just £250k."
"Content such as John Peel's record archive showed a demand for free, online arts content with 900,000 visiting the site over six months," added Alison Clark-Jenkins, the Arts Council's North East director. She went on to say that 25% of visitors discovered arts organisations they had not previously engaged with – a statistic that demonstrates the marketing potential of the platform for participating arts organisations.
As those who delivered a Space project will be acutely aware, rights issues continue to be a thorn in the side of the platform, as Clark-Jenkins explained: "Rights were way more complex than we expected. In the next phase, we will build on our work with partners such as the BFI and the BBC on overcoming some of the rights and licensing issues encountered in the pilot."
While there was some criticism of a lack of marketing investment (perhaps reflected in the relatively modest viewing figures), as well as reported cases of rough editorial practice and technical issues, Clark-Jenkins did say that The Space provides artists and viewers with a new and unique distribution platform that reflects the breadth of the UK arts scene – free from the constraints of ratings-hungry linear TV.
Nurturing tomorrow's talent
Commitment to supporting the development of artistic, on-screen and programme-making talent remains high on the agenda of all the key broadcasters. The Space, Sky Ignition, Futures Fund, a new Channel 4 Random Acts series, and bespoke talent initiatives such as Northern Film & Media's Artist's Cut initiative suggests that broadcasters and public bodies alike are investing their (limited) resources in nurturing tomorrow's talent.
It's crucial that linear and multi-platform coverage of the arts reflects the vibrancy and creativity of the arts scene across the UK and not just what's hot along Southbank. Cities including Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Gateshead have put creativity at the heart of their regeneration strategies, leading to the transformation of industrial buildings into world class arts institutions such as BALTIC, which recently hosted the Turner Prize for the first time and celebrated its tenth birthday. These organisations act as hubs for creative talent and Northern Film & Media, co-located at the gallery, has made encouraging collaboration between the arts and media industries a key focus of its strategy.
Like all technological developments, the proliferation of platforms and expanded consumer choice creates both opportunities and threats. Never has the competition for eyeballs been so strong – a battle that will intensify as the uptake of technologies such as connected TV gathers pace.
"Establishing a clear arts brand has never been so important for broadcasters and online platforms... Channels will have to adapt to not being the gatekeepers for distribution and constantly innovate in their creative decisions," warned Jackson.
The challenges for arts organisations are not dissimilar. "I'm both enthusiastic and anxious about the way digital technology is transforming public engagement with the arts," summarised BALTIC's director Godfrey Worsdale. "It's extremely important for BALTIC to get its digital strategy right, not least because we are a contemporary art institution with no permanent collection. Working with content creators and distributors is a way in which we can equip the gallery with a fit-for-purpose digital offer."