Tag Archives: BBC

Public Service Television Inquiry and the Future of Arts Broadcasting

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Over the past year the state of public service broadcasting in Britain has been something of a hot topic. Following the publication of the government’s green paper on the future of the BBC there has been much debate around the relevance of public service broadcasting in an age of fragmented audiences and digital media abundance. However, although often the centre of such discussion, the BBC is of course not the only UK broadcaster with public service commitments. In September of last year Channel 4 hit the headlines over rumours that it could be facing privatisation to much public outcry. The past decade has also seen a significant reduction in ITV’s public service obligations, particularly in terms of specialist factual provision. These developments and the discourses that surround them signal the need for a broader examination into the place and sustainability of public service broadcasting within the contemporary media landscape.

It is these concerns and others that are currently the focus of an independent inquiry launched by Lord Puttnam entitled A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World. Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, the inquiry aims to ‘address how public service content can be most effectively nurtured taking into consideration a range of services, platforms and funding models’. The inquiry has also run a series of events across the country, including one at Cardiff University which featured on its panel Angharad Mair of BAFTA Wales, the chair of S4c, Huw Jones, Head of Nations and Regions at Channel 4, Ian MacKenzie, Head of Strategy and Digital at BBC Wales, Rhys Evans and Angela Graham of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

The inquiry has also invited submissions addressing the key issues affecting contemporary television. A number of these key issues are identified by Lord Puttnam in a statement on their website which argues:

Public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our broadcast landscape in the UK but we are seeing a worrying fall in investment in key areas such as arts, news and drama as well as the tendency for younger audiences to migrate to new digital platforms.

Indeed, the increasingly competitive media landscape that public service broadcasting finds itself in has proven to be a chilly climate for specialist factual provision, and the arts in particular. Once seen as synonymous with public service values, the narrative of arts provision in Britain over recent years has been one of relative decline. This trend is also evidenced by the media regulator Ofcom, who found that despite hours of factual programming increasing by 20% between 2009 and 2014, spending on arts and classical music content across all UK public service broadcasters fell by 24%.

In our submission to the inquiry Dr Caitriona Noonan and I outline a number of recommendations. These include:

  1. Given the likely changes to both funding and content provision (e.g. the introduction of the BBC studio system) after charter review we would recommend that greater consideration of new and existing models of funding be considered for genres ‘at risk’ such as arts.
  2. While Ofcom and its associated research have signaled issues with the provision of arts content the regulator has yet to offer any viable strategies for the future. We would like more detailed monitoring of arts by the regulator and greater consultation about future provision.
  3. Whether the BBC Trust remains or is replaced by another system, we recommend that arts remain a visible part of their agenda and that there is sufficient accountability regarding the provision both in terms of the quantity and nature of the programming.
  4. While we lament the decline of arts on Channel 4 in peak-time we also acknowledge the creative risks it has taken and its partnership with both artists and arts organisations (e.g. the short-form series Random Acts). We believe that this activity is dependent on Channel 4 being publicly owned and we see this as yet another reason to keep the ownership of channel as it is for the time being.
  5. Further investment should be made into developing innovative content 
creation and distribution strategies for engaging young people with arts and encouraging them to see the arts as a viable career aspiration thereby strengthen the sectors.
  6. We believe there is a need for greater diversity in arts broadcasting in terms of subject matter and form, and in the diversity of those working in this genre behind and in front of the camera. 
We advocate an ongoing commitment within all PSBs to diversity through paid training opportunities extending access to this professional space beyond those from more privileged backgrounds.
  7. We believe there is a strong argument for maintaining BBC Four in terms of protecting specialist factual provision (not only in the arts) and as tangible support for the wider arts ecology in Britain.
  8. Our research highlights that many arts organisations, venues and artists outside of London feel excluded from the mechanisms of broadcasting and its coverage of the arts despite their critically acclaimed and successful work. We would like to see further investment in developing on-going relationships between 
national broadcasters and arts organisations to bring audiences coverage of events from across the UK.
  9.  Our research indicates there is a dearth of specialist factual content that represents the arts and culture in Wales both on network and opt-out services. If one of the duties of PSB is to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities, then it is crucial that there is a strong voice for Wales that reflects the contemporary cultural life of the nation. In order to address this significant weakness in the overall public service provision, we would advocate the need for a more coherent strategy for arts programming that both serves licence fee payers in Wales and promotes Welsh creativity and culture across the network.

(click here to read the full report)

In many ways the mixed fortunes of arts programming and those of public service broadcasting have run in parallel to one another over the years. It could be argued that any weakness in the arts proposition is only symptomatic of the wider challenges facing public service broadcasters as they fight for survival in a competitive, multi-channel environment. The future of public service broadcasting is also the future of arts broadcasting.

 

 

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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.

Contains Strong Language: Some Highlights

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On the 8th of October the BBC marked National Poetry Day by launching a week long season of programmes celebrating both professional and amateur poets.

As the Director of Arts stated on the BBC’s Media Centre homepage:

From BBC One to Radio 3, the BBC is devoted to celebrating and showcasing the extraordinary arts and culture of the UK, bringing it to the largest possible audience wherever and whoever you are. To mark National Poetry Day, Contains Strong Language will celebrate the urgent and disruptive power of poetry, putting it at the heart of schedules, across the BBC’s channels, stations and online.

On World Poetry Day itself, the BBC Radio 4 schedules were taken over by We British: An Epic in Poetry, a series of programmes presented by Andrew Marr exploring ‘British history and identity through poems’. Arranged in a chronological fashion, the programmes featured readings, archive material, and interviews with a number of actors, media personalities and poets including Ian McKellen, Graham Norton and Carol Ann Duffy.

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I must admit, a particular highlight was Marr accidentally calling the poet Liz Berry “Mary Berry”, which I’m sure he’d put down to the final of The Great British Bake Off airing the previous evening.

Listeners were also asked to join the discussion through Twitter with the hashtag #WeBritish. Alongside this there was a special edition of the Shipping Forecast which invited people to ‘sum up their mood or activities in 10 words or less, using the style of the Shipping Forecast’ and submit their poems to Radio 4 via email, Facebook or Twitter. A number of these were then featured on a later edition of the programme.

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However, it seemed that the centrepiece of the season came a couple of days later with BBC Two’s 90-minute feature length documentary, Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death.

Broadcast at 9pm on a Saturday night, the scale of the documentary presented itself through cinematic aerial shots of sweeping green landscapes and rustic towns. This was then juxtaposed by stark black and white footage of countryside scenes permeated by flocks of birds and lone foxes, mirroring the imagery of nature that dominates much of Hughes’ work.

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Speaking for the first time on television Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, discusses her father’s work, life and relationship with her mother. Her accounts, alongside those of others who knew Hughes well form something of a narrative thread throughout the programme, taking the viewer behind the poems to understand the circumstances in which they were conceived.

In lieu of a single narrator or presenter, the use of interviews to weave this narrative thread throughout the film also creates a sense of authenticity. By hearing the accounts of those closest to him, alongside a few more recognisable faces such as the poet Simon Armitage and arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, it becomes a far more human story beyond the black and white indifference of newspaper headlines and English Literature anthologies.

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For me, another particular highlight of this poetry season was BBC Radio 3’s special episode of ‘Between the Ears’ entitled ‘We are Writing a Poem About Home’. In this programme, the writer Kate Clanchy takes us into her poetry workshop to meet some amazingly talented award-winning young poets. Speaking 54 languages between them, the students of the former grammar school recite poems around ‘home’ that takes us beyond mere bricks and mortar to touch upon themes of heritage, belonging and acceptance.

BBC Four also broadcast a repeat of Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, an elegy to the young woman who was brutally attacked and murdered because of her appearance. The screen adaptation of Simon Armitage’s poignant poems about the tragedy is both beautifully rendered and deeply harrowing.

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This isn’t easy viewing and nor should it be. If one of the functions of art is to provoke empathy within the observer, then it should not be overlooked that art can also give a voice to the silenced.

In a media landscape in which tragic news stories saturate our television screens and Facebook feeds, it is sometimes only in the steady rhythm of poetry that we can stop to think.

Decoding in the Dark: Radio and the Visual Arts

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“It’s late on a Parisian evening in 1882. The newly opened Folies-Bergère is busy. Here up on the first floor gallery, the mirrored bars are dazzling with lights for the trapeze performers flying about the main auditorium. Make your way through the jostling crowd, some watching the show, many others chatting, drinking and being seen, and you find one of the newly permitted female bartenders is free. You think you’ve caught her eye amidst the frivolity going on around her. Or have you? She’s certainly caught your attention even though she’s not really looking at you. It’s those eyes. And those eyes belong to the girl at the bar of the Folies-Bergère here on one of the walls of the Courtauld gallery in the heart of London. And you can find it by typing the title of the painting into your internet search engine. Type in Bar at the Folies-Bergère”

And so begins the first in BBC Radio Four’s new series Decoding the Masterworks, which yesterday featured an in-depth examination of Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bèrgere’.

Presented by art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, along with various other experts, the three-part series ‘examines famous and familiar works of art in minute detail’ to ‘provide context, biographical background and artistic insight’ and ‘decode these masterworks for today’s audience’.

Recorded on location and complete with the sound of reverberating footsteps and voices echoing across the open space, on closing your eyes it isn’t too hard to imagine yourself right there at the Courtauld gallery.

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Indeed, the commentary the programme provides might put you in mind of those audio guides that are often given out at tourist traps around the country, and no doubt leave a number of disgruntled human tour guides out of work.

But of course, just like walking around a gallery with your eyes closed, you cannot see a painting through radio anymore than you can listen to an opera through a newspaper.

It would seem inherently obvious that the visual arts are a particularly tricky subject to present through the medium of sound. Often when the visual arts are featured on radio it is in the form of interviews with the artists themselves or the human-interest stories that surround the work and its creation. Rarely is the aesthetic analysis of a piece the primary focus.

But could the Internet be changing this?

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As I stated in a previous post that also briefly touched on this subject:

It seems that the Internet is the new Radio Times in terms of providing material to accompany radio broadcasts. Where once the listener would sit at home listening to football commentary while referring to their numbered pitch diagram to follow the action, we are now directed online for supplementary visual content to accompany broadcasts.

For those listening to Decoding the Masterworks online, in the text description box below the programme iPlayer radio helpfully informs you that:

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The use of the Internet as a platform for visual content in radio broadcasting may indeed be expanding radio’s coverage of the visual arts in a variety of different ways. But at what point does such additional content become necessary rather than just supplementary?

There seems to be an assumption that most listeners tuning in to Decoding the Masterworks are already quite familiar with the pieces being discussed. As Ramirez states towards the beginning of the programme:

“Even if you can’t get to your computer or tablet at the moment, you probably know this image. It’s ubiquitous; you find it on biscuit tins, t-shirts, posters…”

However, the ‘minute details’ of the paintings being examined are surely far beyond the capability of even the most photographic of memories. So is the Manet aficionado who is listening while driving to work still being left in the dark?

Indeed, when it comes to aesthetic analysis in the visual arts, it could perhaps be argued that in many ways it is not the image that supplements the radio broadcast, but in fact the radio broadcast that supplements the image.

BBC ARTS at Hay Festival 2015

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Over the past week BBC ARTS has been providing extensive coverage of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts through online live streams, social media, radio and television. But I felt that to really get a better sense of the BBC’s role as one of Hay’s largest media partners I would need to go along and experience the event first hand.

On arriving at the festival the first thing that I couldn’t fail to notice was that the BBC certainly has a very prominent presence, with large posters throughout the site advertising “The best of Hay on TV, radio and online” along with a URL for the BBC ARTS homepage.

As the epicentre for this coverage the BBC Tent predominantly hosted events and live broadcasts for Radio 3 and Radio 4, which were free to attend for the public. Each event began with the audience being shown a short video featuring vox pops from speakers such as Stephen Fry and Jude Law describing what Hay means to them, alongside clips of festival attendees sat reading in the sun or stood in queues for various talks.

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However, one of the most interesting BBC events I attended in regards to my own area of research around public service broadcasting was a session by Radio 4’s Sunday morning magazine programme Broadcasting House.

Hosted by Paddy O’Connell, it offered a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of Radio 4 illustrated by O’Connell’s personal anecdotes and clips of various bloopers that had made it to air over the years.

But what was perhaps most interesting was the way in which the session was primarily focused on the views and opinions of those in the audience, with O’Connell often reiterating how important feedback from licence payers is to the BBC.

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The session started with a conversational tone, inviting audience members to share their “best bits of Hay” before moving on to the slightly more provocative theme of “things you hate about BBC Radio 4”.

Along with specific programmes that prompt people to switch off, this was also met with broader concerns about the BBC being too London-centric and the recent domination of the news by the unfolding story surrounding the criminal investigations at FIFA.

In response to the last point O’Connell asked the audience which news events they would like to hear covered on future editions of Broadcasting House, going on to outline plans for features on upcoming programmes and asking for feedback on them.

There were also a few words from the editor of the programme who spoke about the difficulties of broadcasting programmes live from Hay in regard appealing to both the audience at the event and those sitting at home.

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It is perhaps interesting to consider whether this is largely due to the challenges of making a radio format somewhat visually appealing for the live audience while still engaging the distant listener. Along with this, a further factor may be the differences in expectation when we listen to the radio in a domestic setting compared to the sense of spectacle that is often emphasised in live events.

From going to this event and not really knowing what to expect beyond what the title ‘Behind the Scenes’ implies, I found the emphasis on audience feedback and participation of particular interest in regard to the BBC and its public service remit more generally.

As an institution that was founded partly on the principles of providing the public with what they need rather than what they want, this shift towards public service broadcasting being presented as more user-led than paternal seems increasingly evident and indeed vital for the organisation’s continued survival. As O’Connell stated at the beginning of the session:

 “When the BBC gets it right it remembers who the audience is. When it gets it wrong it forgets who the audience is”

Where is the Line Between History and Arts Programming?

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BBC Four’s Ancient Greece season kicked off this week with the first episode of Treasures of Ancient Greece, a new three-part series presented by Alastair Sooke, and a special episode of Secret Knowledge entitled ‘The Body Beautiful – Ancient Greeks, Good Looks and Glamour’.

While watching this double bill of Greek art last Wednesday night I was again struck with a question that often comes up both when watching such programmes and the discussion that surrounds them: where do we draw the line between what is considered arts programming and history programming? The different approaches taken to the subject matters presented in Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge provide the perfect opportunity to examine this question in a little more detail.

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One line of inquiry might be to consider whether the art featured within the programme is used to illustrate the historical content or whether the historical content is used to contextualise the art.

Although the historical narrative is obviously very strong in Treasures of Ancient Greece, the art is still very clearly the focus. This is an approach that is emphasised right at the start of the programme as Sooke lays down the underlining thesis of the series:

“It was the ancient Greeks who shaped our ideas of what art should look like. No other civilisation has played such an important role in creating our vision of artistic perfection, of beauty, of realism.”

It is about the significance of art in Greek society, rather than just using art to illustrate the past. For instance, when discussing a wall painting which portrays the Minoan spectacle of bull-leaping, particular attention is paid to dissecting the composition of the piece rather than merely focusing on the particular cultural significance of the practice depicted. Although the social and cultural context behind the art is of course still present to a degree, it is often an aesthetic analysis that takes centre stage.

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However, if we go on to look at the programme that aired directly after Treasures of Ancient Greece, we’ll witness a slightly different approach to the presentation of art on screen. In Secret Knowledge: The Body Beautiful Natalie Haynes traces our obsession with the ‘perfect body’ back to the Ancient Greeks through their art, and their sculpture in particular. Much of the discussion that surrounds the artwork is focused on how the Greeks perceived beauty, with particular references to the philosophy of Socrates who set out to define the nature of beauty in his famous dialogue Hippias Major.

So should this programme fall within the category of arts or history programming?

Indeed, compared to Treasures of Ancient Greece there is a noticeable shift in emphasis to the social context as a basis for analysis rather than purely the aesthetics of the art itself. However, there is a strong argument that the very subject matter of how we define ‘beauty’ is among one of the primary concerns in art both from a philosophical and practical perspective. As Haynes states when introducing the purpose of the programme:

“It’s going to ask, and I hope answer, one of the most fundamental questions about all of art: What is beauty?”

As both programmes have demonstrated, the line between history and arts programming is often difficult to define. This might beg the question of whether there is actually any real value in trying to distinguish between two perhaps arbitrary categories.

Art is often hard to avoid in what might predominantly be seen as historical programming, particularly when dealing with times before high levels of literacy when ideas were more commonly communicated through images than writing. It is also important not to overlook that the visual nature of television also lends itself better to displaying art from a particular time period than the written word.

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But what about when we consider content branding strategies such as BBC ARTS? The BBC’s arts and history content each have their own dedicated separate webpages, although it is interesting to note that Treasures of Ancient Greece is present on both. If there is an overlap in the way content is organised, how does this translate in regards to matters such as funding and marketing?

The definition and categorisation of arts programming is also an ever-present concern within my own research on the subject. Indeed, I will often ask my interviewees to tell me how them themselves define arts broadcasting.

Both Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge were featured in the BBC ARTS email newsletter, which is to suggest that they fall within the category of arts programming. However, it does seem that the less arts coverage that is coming up in a given week, the broader the range of programming featured.

So should arts programming on the BBC be defined as any programme that features the BBC ARTS ident at the beginning, or should there be a closer examination of the content of the programmes themselves? Is it often simply a case of invoking Potter Stewart’s famous maxim: “I know it when I see it”, or should there more analysis involved?

Although the line between history and arts programming may often be blurred or even arbitrary to some, I believe there is still value in considering the ways in which a separate genre for the arts is defined within the context of production and branding.

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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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