The recent axing of The Review Show highlights a long running discrepancy between arts programming and the magazine format.
A common trend throughout the history of arts broadcasting is the change in programme format from magazine to a more documentary/thematic approach. Both Monitor and The South Bank Show, for example, started out as magazine programmes, gradually shifting to focus on single subjects per episode.
The Culture Show’s increase in thematic ‘special’ episodes is a useful contemporary example of how long-running series must adapt to survive (although I don’t want to jump the gun too much in regards to the longevity of the programme, even in its current state). Like The Review Show, The Culture Show has been rescheduled numerous times, erratically darting around the television schedule from 7pm weekly slots to 10pm one-off specials. What started out as BBC Two’s flagship arts magazine programme has over the past year noticeably switched to producing more thematic programmes under the branding of ‘Culture Show Specials’.
The rationale for switching to a thematic approach is often cited as audiences wanting more depth and analysis beyond the limitations of short ten-minute features. In relation to this, it is also important to note that the ‘arts’, and ‘culture’ especially, are very broad categories. Providing an already niche audience with short segments centred around very specific areas of a vast art world is unlikely to attract as much attention as an hour long documentary which provides an in depth understanding of a particular topic.
However, with the demise of the magazine format coverage of arts is once again narrowed. Choices must be made about which topic to focus on each week, meaning that programmes are often catering to the imagined mainstream audience within the art world, which is usually constructed as very middle class, very white, and often London-centric.
With the daily topical programme The One Show set to feature the arts more prominently in future, it is interesting to consider if the apparent failure of arts magazine formats can in fact provide a strategy for making the arts more accessible to mainstream audiences. The ability to provide audiences with general information on a particular topic in a short space of time, as opposed to more in depth critical analysis, lends itself well to attracting the attention of viewers who would not usually engage with the arts due to alienation with the elitist image that often surrounds it.
However, with its eclectic mishmash of features, one of the underlying issues with programmes like The One Show that cover a wide range of topics for an even wider audience is that of tone. If the viewer is being shown the hazardous driving conditions as a result of heavy snowfall, then is being asked to send in humorous pictures of snowmen they’ve built in their back garden, the audience is placed in a bizarre no man’s land between The Six O’clock News and Blue Peter. The programme doesn’t seem to attempt to engage the viewer to any substantial degree, as it never seems sure whom exactly it is trying to engage with. As opposed to ‘mainstream’, it may be more accurate to say that The One Show represents itself as aimed at a ‘mass’ audience, with all the negative connotations that entails.
The very presence of the arts within mainstream programming should contribute to altering wider societal views in terms of the issues surrounding elitism and class associated with ‘high culture’. However, whether placing the arts within populist magazine programmes actually leads to viewer engagement and the creation of new audiences for the arts remains unseen.