Category Archives: BBC

Is the Future of Arts Broadcasting Online?

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Despite the high profile campaigns, petitions and hashtags, this month BBC Three is set to go off air and become online-only. Although the decision to move BBC Three branded content to the iPlayer will reportedly make savings of around £30 million a year, the BBC Trust acknowledged that ‘almost 1 million younger viewers could desert the corporation as a consequence’.

With young people spending more time online than watching television for the first time ever, changing consumption habits seem to provide a strong rationale behind BBC Three’s departure from the linear broadcasting landscape. However, when asked back in 2014 to comment on what the axing of BBC Three as an on-air channels means for the future of other niche services such as BBC Four, former controller, Danny Cohen stated that “if future funding for the BBC comes under more threat then the likelihood is we would have to take more services along the same [online only] route [as BBC3].”

More recently, concerns around the future of BBC Four and other key platforms for specialist arts and cultural content were raised after a speech by Tony Hall in September of last year in which he stated:

“In summary the BBC faces a very tough financial challenge. So we will have to manage our resources ever more carefully and prioritise what we believe the BBC should offer. We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services.”

In my own research interviews with media professionals and those who work within arts organisations in the UK, the possibility of more arts content being distributed online as opposed to traditional broadcasting has been met by both enthusiasm and concern in equal measure.

In theory you might expect that having more arts content online would encourage what many would argue is a much needed increase in diversity in terms of both form and content.

Online platforms allow for a wider variety of ways to create and consume content, such as articles, vlogs, images, along with more traditional long-form video including documentaries and live relays. Further to this, commissioning online content tends to involve less risk as the costs involved both in production and distribution is generally less than that of traditional broadcasting. Of course even further reduced budgets is not good news for those creating the content and in turn may lead to fewer producers specialising in the arts, particularly within the independent sector.

Another advantage to online platforms is that they are not constrained to the comparatively limited space of radio and television schedules, enabling a potential increase in the amount of arts coverage available. Along with this, the internet allows for a more immediate reaction to events than traditional media. You can be watching an interview with a curator at the opening of their new exhibition just hours after it opens before switching to a livestream of an opera direct from Covent Garden.

In line with the BBC Three model, being able to access more content online and on demand is also about responding to changing media consumption habits, particularly those of young people. The audience for linear broadcast television is ageing and this trend is even more concentrated in the arts.

So could online arts provision be the solution? In 2014 the BBC launched Private View, a series of iPlayer exclusives with a younger demographic in mind. The films consist of prominent figures from pop culture such as musician Tinie Tempah and fashion icon Lianne La Havas taking the viewer on a ‘series of personal tours of blockbuster exhibitions’. The series has proved something of an online success with Goldie’s Private View of Matisse being the most watched arts programme on iPlayer.

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However, there are concerns around whether arts broadcasting could actually suffer more than other genres in this more fragmented, menu-based system. Back in the days when you had perhaps only three television channels to choose from you might watch an arts programme just because it happened to be the next thing on. Even now, decades after the Reithian diet of ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ programming sitting alongside each other in the schedules has been rendered obsolete by digitalisation, you might still see a trailer for an arts documentary that catches your interest at the end of Eastenders.

There’s no escaping the fact that the core audience for arts programming is small, and while online platforms may be great for ‘binge watching’ the latest hit drama, there seems to be little opportunity in this user-led environment for broader audiences to be introduced to new content and ideas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for public service broadcasters, if the resurgence of event television in recent years tells us anything it’s that there is still nothing like the impact of mainstream broadcasting. Social media and live-tweeting have in many ways strengthened traditional media by making programmes talking points for live online discussion. Advances in media technology may mean that people are consuming more content online and on demand than ever before, but linear broadcasting still has an important role to play in creating a sense of shared experience and engaging people in a national conversation of which the arts must surely be a part.

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40 Years of Arena in 24 Hours

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Created in 1975 by the then head of BBC Music and Arts, Humphrey Burton, Arena has been a platform for some of the most groundbreaking arts documentaries on television. From My Way (1979) to The Chelsea Hotel (1981) and The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (1982), the multi award-winning arts strand has received critical acclaim for its high quality, avant-garde approach to the arts in terms of both form and content.

Introduced by the writer and broadcaster, John Lloyd, Night and Day celebrates the creativity and diversity of filmmaking that has come to define the strand over the past forty years:

“The film you’re about to see brings together the work of many producers, directors and their teams, but it demonstrates a commonality of purpose that characterises the six hundred or so films in the Arena canon. […] Rather than make a best of compilation to mark the anniversary, the decision was made to try and bring the past into the present and make a new film. It’s an evocation, drawn entirely from Arena films, of the one experience common to everything thing and everyone on the planet; the inextricable twenty-four hour cycle of night and day.”

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 The film takes the viewer through footage spanning a range of subjects, eras and locations, cut out and stuck together to form a video collage of a day. From Pete Doherty diving into a rooftop pool against a pre-dawn Barcelona skyline, to Sonny Rollins walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, we watch as the world rises to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Night and Day’. Breakfast is then served by Mary Jenkins Langston, Elvis Presley’s personal cook who featured in the 1996 film, The Burger and the King and charted some of The King’s more eclectic dietary tastes.

The morning commute is a montage of suits, trains and umbrellas from the streets of cities around the world. Amongst them is Mel Brooks arriving on set in Hollywood from Alan Yentob’s 1981 iconic portrait of the film director, screenwriter and sometime actor. We then join the Spectator columnist, Jeffrey Bernard in his home office as he taps out the latest entry for the weekly column that earned him his cult following.

While noon brings a liquid lunch down the pub for Bernard and actor Tom Baker, The Beatles are taking a break on their 1967 Magical Mystery Tour to visit Smedley’s chip shop on Roman Road, Taunton.

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In the afternoon Richard Rogers guides us through the financial marketplace housed in the Lloyds building, London. Scenes of bankers in suits become street vendors in coats as we are taken along with Linda McCartney as she photographs bustling marketplaces of a different kind. At the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana the workday continues, while seemingly worlds apart George Martin takes afternoon tea with his oboe teacher, Margaret Eliot.

The sun sets over busy highways and tranquil beaches as day fades into night. At Elstree Studios, London, Jack Nicholson is brushing his teeth and preparing to go back on set for The Shining, while over at The Chelsea Hotel in New York, pop artist Andy Warhol and novelist William Burroughs are engaged in rather surreal conversation over dinner.

As both the 24 hours and the film draw to a close, the cycle of night and day is completed as a passage from Under Milk Wood read at the beginning of the programme is repeated once more.

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In some ways this 90 minute feature-length film is reminiscent of Life in a Day (2011), which used crowdsourced video clips to tell the story of a single day on earth ‘through a multitude of perspectives’. Although the two films seem rather juxtaposed in terms of production, with Night and Day centred around creative use of archive footage and Life in a Day around more everyday content creation in the digital age, the central theme is still that of shared human experience governed by the perpetual cycle of the 24 hour day.

However, more importantly Night and Day bears testimony to the exceptionally broad remit of Arena over the past forty years. From Francis Bacon to George Formby, Marilyn Monroe to Henry Moore, popular culture and high are presented with equal attention and depth across the strand. What is also striking is the creative and imaginative ways in which these range of topics have been presented on screen. Through this Arena has built a reputation as a strand that is willing to be experimental with both form and content. Night and Day and the films featured within it don’t just serve to document art and culture, but also stand as significant cultural artefacts in their own right.

BBC ARTS is Getting Creative

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Last Thursday the BBC launched its new year-long campaign ‘Get Creative’, which Director-General Tony Hall hopes will serve to “inspire everyone to make art or do something creative.”

Speaking on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, Director of BBC Arts Jonty Claypole explained that a fundamental part of the scheme is ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to get involved with the arts, regardless of their social background or education. In regard to the BBC’s unique role as a broadcaster in this, he stated: “Through our services we reach 96% of the population a week, so we’re really well placed to get more people than ever before practising art and doing creative things”.

The nationwide campaign launched last week with a series of events across the country arranged by the organisation Voluntary Arts and shared on social media using the hashtag #bbcgetcreative.

Over 100 organisations have signed up to take part in the campaign, including prominent cultural institutions such as Arts Council England, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the BFI, among others. The BBC has also released a promotional video for the scheme featuring celebrities and public figures such as Johnny Vegas, Kate Moss, Frank Skinner and Andrew Marr.

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BBC Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw’s ‘Cultural Selfie’

Not only is this new initiative significant in terms of scale, but also in the way that engagement with the arts is being promoted across a range of platforms, pulled together by the BBC’s Get Creative website.

The ‘Get Creative’ campaign, in line with Tony Hall’s vision of the arts and the launch of the BBC ARTS strand seems rather strategically placed as we come up to the charter review in 2016. In a multiplatform digital age, the BBC as a public service broadcaster seem keen to assert their value as a cultural institution beyond just television and radio. This emphasis on engaging audiences with the arts through interactive online and offline events draws attention to how broadcasters have adapted to technological and social change in ways that prompt us to reconsider traditional notions of public service.

Alongside this, the upcoming general election seems to be creating a climate in which we’re beginning to see a lot of discussion and debate around the value of arts and culture within society. Increasingly, it seems the arts are being used to talk about everything from education to the economy in terms of cultural policy.

Broadcasting serves a significant role in giving a voice to these debates. Most recently, The Front Row Debate on BBC Radio 4 and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 have discussed topics such as whether the state owes artists a living and hosted on-going discussions around the value of art, respectively. Along with its significance in regard to contributing to a wider discussion around the value of arts and culture in society, this coverage of the arts also sends out an important message about what is worth talking about and what debates are worth having.

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Countryfile and One Show presenter Matt Baker

If you would like to take part in a Get Creative event without even leaving the comfort of your living room, on 27th February at 1pm the Welsh National Opera will be leading a Twitter debate around the question ‘will austerity kill culture?’ using the hashtag #killculture. For more details please go to: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/will-austerity-kill-culture

The Great British Paint Off

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Last night saw the first episode of BBC One’s new arts competition The Big Painting Challenge hosted by Richard Bacon and Una Stubbs, and judged by acclaimed artists Daphne Todd and and Lachlan Goudie. This is the first of the BBC’s series of special programming designed to “encourage people to discover a new passion or master a talent they already have” as part of the year-long Get Creative campaign which was launched last week.

The series involves ten amateur artists demonstrating their skills across a range of mediums by completing three challenges each week. Each episode has a particular theme, such as landscapes or portraiture, culminating in the judges deciding which contestant is leaving the competition that week.

Whilst Stubbs herself is a keen amateur artist whose watercolour portraits of her Sherlock co-stars Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have been displayed as part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Bacon seems a more unusual choice of host, although he asserts quite early on in the programme that he is a “keen art collector”.

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The contestants featured represent quite a wide cross-section of society, from a young Cambridge University student, to a British Army sergeant, to a single mother from Swansea. Throughout the programme we are given a brief background on each contestant and their relationship to art, which seems to emphasise that you don’t necessarily need to go to art school in order to consider yourself an artist.

Portraying everyday people creating art also serves to reduce the somewhat authoritative nature present within a lot of arts programming. As a viewer, we are perhaps more inclined to make aesthetic judgements on their work because they’re not part of an established cultural canon. We won’t be branded a philistine for thinking one of their paintings might be “a bit crap”.

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Along with appealing to a broader audience, the competition format also gives us an insight into art that we don’t often see. We are usually just exposed to the finish product, rather than the practical process of creating the piece, whether this is in arts programming or hanging in a gallery. This is of course because commonly the artists that make up the majority our cultural canon are long dead, leaving us to interpret their work retrospectively from the finished product. By reversing this narrative, the finished artwork is not symbolic of years, perhaps even centuries, of interpretation and study. The viewer is free to judge the piece on a purely aesthetic level that is accessible to everyone as a subjective opinion. The work doesn’t have a history around it that needs to be known in order to feel like you understand the work and can therefore pass judgement.

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It is no surprise that the series has received criticism for being too similar to Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year in its format. However, there are some notable differences, the most striking of which is that there seems to be a little less emphasis on the competitive element. The focus on the personal stories of the participants and their creative process while undertaking the challenges often leaves you forgetting that the end goal is to win a competition. In a lot of ways it often feels like you are sitting in on an art class field trip in which it’s hard to tell whether the real subject is in front of the easel or behind it.