BBC director-general Tony Hall yesterday announced a wide-ranging plan to beef up the national broadcaster’s arts coverage, bringing in notable and experienced British arts workers in advisory and partner roles, and raising the TV arts budget from 15.5 million pounds to more than 18 million.
Hall has already been criticised for a conservative and “stale” approach to arts coverage which views the world from a Royal Opera House box (he was previously ROH’s chief executive), but it does show a commitment and acknowledges a clear and basic point: if you want to cover the arts effectively, you need to be properly engaged with arts organisations and artists. It’s a point that the ABC doesn’t seem to understand quite as well as its British counterpart.
The ABC’s charter requires that the broadcaster encourages and promotes the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia. In some ways, it’s excelling in this area; the ABC is at the centre of the development of quality Australian television drama; from Triple J to Classic FM, and even to Rage, there’s a broad range of music covered. But how engaged is the ABC with the performing arts and broader cultural conversations?
In 2011, a group of eminent artists and arts administrators penned an open letter to the ABC board protesting against diminishing arts programming on ABC TV. ABC managing director Mark Scott responded, arguing the ABC was not neglecting arts coverage, but working to find more effective ways of reaching arts audiences.
Over the last several years, the ABC’s arts coverage has undergone a number of changes: the axing of the weekly, hour-long Sunday Arts, the axing of half-hour replacement Art Nation, the introduction of Sunday Arts Up Late (made up of mostly international documentaries), the introduction and axing of ABC2 Live Presents(which included both local and international live performances), the introduction of a new arts website with some excellent content and the ending of ABC’s long-term arrangement with classical music magazine Limelight.
The ABC has clearly been working to find the right arts mix across its multitude of platforms (and it’s been a period of trial-and-error innovation across the whole of the ABC to work out where it sits in the evolving digital age), but it’s desperately in need of the voices of those artists who are connecting with audiences. It needs their ideas, their expertise and their ambition.
We’re at a point where some of our major theatre companies are quietly looking at how they can dip their toes into the digital sphere. They’re looking to follow in the footsteps of the successful National Theatre Live, which has, since 2009, screened between five and eight plays in cinemas around the world each season. Australia is a broad continent — it’s still difficult for arts organisations to reach the broad audiences that technology allows them to.
While the broadcast of live performance isn’t the be-all and end-all of promoting and encouraging the arts, it should be a major part of the mix. When our artists are producing such excellent, pertinent work, the ABC must — where it can — ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to access that work. The ABC should constantly be talking to performing arts companies about what works they can pick up for broadcast and acting when something significant shows up. How Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River — a piece of national significance and relevance — never made its way to ABC television, or any digital platform, is beyond me (although ABC does have plans to turn Kate Grenville’s original novel into a mini-series).
The ABC has had varying levels of success with broadcasting live theatrical and operatic performances. While the ABC2 broadcast of Keating! The Musical drew 73,000 viewers (which was a channel record at the time), its broadcast of new Australian opera Bliss played to only 6000 when it premiered on ABC2 in 2010. Back in 2011, Scott said:
“There is no plan to chase ratings with more populist fare. The ABC will continue to serve niche audiences — we’re comfortable with the fact that cultural pursuits won’t often draw MasterChef-type figures.”
But yesterday, Hall said:
“The arts are for everyone, and from now on BBC Arts will be at the very heart of what we do.”
It’s this disparity in attitudes which lies at the core of the ABC’s arts problem. While our arts companies understand that they serve broad audiences, the ABC still views its work and audiences as niche. A drop in the ocean. A side project to the ABC’s more “serious” business.