BSkyB upstages BBC, Channel 4

Sky Arts brings diva fever to culture wars

LONDON In the U.K., the mighty BBC and iconoclastic Channel 4 are justly proud of their coverage of the arts. But they are about to be upstaged in the culture stakes by BSkyB, which built its business on sports and movies.

Next month, however, the News Corp.-backed payboxbows Sky Arts 2, an avowedly upscale channel where auds can enjoy an evening of opera from the New York Met or a full-length rendition of a Mozart piano concerto. Meanwhile rock fans head bang to Iggy Pop or a vintage Led Zeppelin perf on Sky Arts 1.

“We realized that a one-size-fits-all approach was no longer suitable for Sky Arts,” BSkyB entertainment topper Sophie Turner-Laing says. “If you’re going to broadcast an opera in its entirety, a lot of space is required in the schedule — and passionate opera fans don’t always appreciate it if they can’t get what they want because we’re running Johnny Cash concerts back-to-back.”

Sky Arts channel director James Hunt says there was something “schizoid” about having Jimi Hendrix on one night followed by Verdi the next. “Launching a second channel means we’re effectively doubling our output and raising the bar for arts TV in the same way that Sky has raised the bar for sports, movies and news,” Hunt says.

To complete the revamped Sky Arts package, which debuts Oct. 20, Sky Arts HD’s lineup will take fare from both arts webs.

Skeptics point to the timing of BSkyB’s increased commitment to arts coverage just as U.K. regulators complete their review of public service broadcasting.

Evidence of the paybox attempting to broaden its appeal among the middle- and opinion-forming classes will not do BSkyB any harm in political circles, where concerns persist regarding the company’s dominance of the U.K. pay-TV market.

“Undoubtedly Sky Arts is a fig leaf, but it is a very impressive one and tries a lot harder than is actually necessary,” opines a British TV veteran.

In fact, Sky Arts, which launched in 2005 following the demise of the Artsworld channel, is refreshingly inclusive in its attitude toward the arts.

As Turner-Laing, a former acquisitions maven at the BBC, says: “Our approach to arts is not about education; it’s about entertainment.”

With approximately 75% of the material either acquired or co-produced (Sky Arts lists New York’s Metropolitan Opera House among its partners), the satcaster cannot, of course, compete with the sheer amount of original arts shows commissioned by the BBC. But it is giving the Beeb a run for its money in breadth of coverage. One of Sky Arts’ flagship skeins is “The Book Show,” the only dedicated program of its kind on British TV.