30 June 2022

Axing TV arts is a disgrace


RADIO TIMES, 2-8 JULY 2022, p. 7

Viewpoint: Waldemar Januszczak

BACK IN THE 1990s, I used to be head of arts at Channel 4. I put Glastonbury on television. I put the Turner Prize on television. We did Glyndebourne. We did the Edinburgh Festival. Dennis Potter talked to us in a famous interview that lasted 104 minutes. We showed the whole thing uncut.

My boss Michael Grade [chief executive of Channel 4 1988-97] believed in the arts. On top of all the specials and live broadcasts, he gave me 30 primetime slots a year: 9pm on Tuesdays, one hour long. J’accuse – Citizen Kane won a Bafta. We won Emmys. The music department did The Three Tenors. It was a heyday.

And not just at Channel 4. Omnibus on BBC1 was producing excellent arts coverage. BBC2 was largely and brilliantly an arts channel and Arena was scooping award after award for its supremely creative approach. Even ITV was showing The South Bank Show at regular and viewable times. British television, you felt, was doing right by the arts.

Compare that with now. The announcement that BBC4 is to be scrapped as a terrestrial channel, while the ‘yoof’ channel, BBC3, is restored, means that the only channel dedicated to the arts left on British television is the heroic Sky Arts. It’s a national disgrace. When people talk to me about diversity and choice on British TV, I laugh in their faces.

Channel 4 began backing out of its ambitious arts coverage pretty much as soon as Michael Grade left. These things are always down to who arrives next. Set up with public money, charged with a public-service remit, Channel 4 should not have been allowed to run down its arts coverage and replace it with freak shows, creepy voyeurism, extreme this and that. It’s why I have no sympathy whatsoever with the current fight to ‘save’ Channel 4 from privatisation. In television, as elsewhere, ou reap what you sow.

A worse crime, though, is what has happened to the arts on the BBC. BBC4 was set up specifically to cater for an arts-loving audience. But for years, the BBC has been starving it of resources in order to make even more expensive dramas.

BBC2, meanwhile, gave up pretending it was interested in the arts decades ago. It’s self-evidently a lifestyle channel, as pointless and disposable as a Sunday newspaper pull-out. I’ve met all the recent controllers of BBC2 and not one of them has shown a tangible interest in the arts. What they were all tangibly interested in was cooking, property, driving, travel, more cooking, ballroom dancing and quizzes.


NONE OF THESE lunkheads appears to have realised that the best way to prove you’re fulfilling a public-service remit on the BBC is to put public-service programmes on the BBC – catering for those who aren’t otherwise being catered for.

Everyone knows the ‘yoof’ audience doesn’t need BBC3. It doesn’t watch terrestrial TV, it watches stuff on its phone in the bedroom. By chasing after them like an old grandpa who’s bought himself purple flares because purple flares are ‘dope’, the BBC is embarrassing itself. Worse still, it’s chasing after the same demographic as everyone else, and that isn’t the public-service broadcasting we’re paying for.

Meanwhile, there’s another audience out there that really does need more arts on television. Perhaps some of them are so old that they don’t know how to watch stuff on their phone. But so what? When did growing old become a crime?

Bravo then to Sky Arts for continuing to supply public-service television even though they’re not legally obliged to do so.

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