Tag Archives: the arts

Is the Future of Arts Broadcasting Online?

bbc_three_logo

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.

p01zv7vx

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.

BBC ARTS at Hay Festival 2015

11124543_10153276708817088_3866346204541740435_n 2

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.

11110568_10153276709092088_3789323684880085515_n

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.

11393173_10153276708927088_250775398387806675_n

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.

11391534_10153276708837088_8135615577917982599_n

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?

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 12.17.47

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 12.35.57

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 13.04.48

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.

BayeuxTapestry_2398754b

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

get-creative-header

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 14.41.21

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 14.41.01

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.29.11

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”.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.40.02

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”.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.56.26

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.35.24

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.

Would Wilde have watched the Culture Show?

Oscar

In the essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Oscar Wilde lays out his vision of a utopian socialist society in which the inherently demoralising work of manual labour is undertaken by machinery, leaving the individual time to focus on cultivating the soul through self-understanding and the creation of ‘beautiful things’.

For Wilde, the beauty of art is a result of its nature as one of the purest forms of self-expression:

‘A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want’ (1891: 304)

As such, it follows that in order for a piece of art to be popular the artist must attempt to suppress the individualism that is inherent in creating it, and in doing so strip all artistic integrity from their work.

‘In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest’ (1891: 305)

So what would Wilde have made of the arts being broadcast on television? It goes without saying that through broadcasting their work artists are opening themselves up for feedback and criticism within the most public of arenas, the influence of which cannot easily be ignored. So we can perhaps assume that Wilde would have viewed their work with much the same ironic distaste that he reserved for novels and the theatre in the late 19th Century when he stated that:

 ‘No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England’ (1891: 305)

But perhaps Wilde’s biggest gripe with the arts being broadcast on television would have been with their unavoidable mediation. Wilde proposed that we should approach the arts with an open mind as free from all preconceptions as possible:

‘If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play’ (1891: 311)

 It’s certainly hard to see television being able to facilitate such a state of mind Wilde describes here as essential for experiencing art. In arts programming the artist is not a solo violinist, but rather part of a complex orchestra of producers, presenters, scriptwriters, commissioners, and so on.

Therefore Wilde would perhaps argue that television could never show us ‘true’ art in its purest form, for how are we to approach art with an open mind with Andrew Graham-Dixon chattering away in our ear about it?

To return to the title of this post: Would Wilde have watched The Culture Show? Perhaps. But not without writing a scathing review in The Independent about its contribution to the moral degradation of the soul afterwards.

Wilde, O. (1891). The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The Fortnightly Review. Vol. XLIX, No. 290, February 1891, pp. 292-319