Britain’s only television channel dedicated solely to arts and culture, Sky Arts, is to become free for everyone as part of what it said was a mission to “champion and celebrate creativity”.
The channel has a dedicated, if sometimes niche, following and is only available to Sky customers.
That will change in September when it becomes available to all viewers at no cost. Sky Arts director, Philip Edgar-Jones, said the decision was motivated by a sense of corporate social responsibility rather than money or chasing viewers.
Sky “is not as hard nosed” as some might think, he said. “There is a genuine desire to serve the public. I don’t get judged at Sky about viewing figures, I just don’t. That’s not why we exist.”
Edgar-Jones said he wanted more people to watch the channel because it had a remit to make the arts more accessible. “There’s never been a stronger need or demand for the arts, nor a more important time to champion and celebrate creativity,” he said.
Upcoming programme highlights will include a biography of the band the Style Council; an exploration of the life and works of Harold Pinter by his unlikely friend Danny Dyer; and a broadcast of one of English National Opera’s September drive-in performances of La Bohème.
One of the channel’s most popular shows, Portrait Artist of the Year, returns with sitters who including Sir Trevor McDonald, singer Ray BLK and Normal People star Paul Mescal.
In 2021 there will be a series bringing artists and communities together to create “the next great British landmark”.
The channel also announced a series of £30,000 bursaries that will involve leading cultural figures supporting and mentoring diverse and emerging new artists.
The arts and the people who work in the sector have been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus crisis. Edgar-Jones said everyone involved had a part to play in helping the arts get back on their feet.
“I think television has stepped up in a brilliant way during the crisis. The BBC’s culture in quarantine is marvellous, Grayson Perry’s Art Club absolutely brilliant, the National Theatre on YouTube, our own Portrait Artist of the Week where people have been joining in every Sunday.
“Phase two is now helping people monetise their content.”
Edgar-Jones said he saw Sky Arts as more than just a television channel. “A lot of what we do is not just about making TV, it is about creating new work which lives and breathes in communities and society in general.
“We are in active discussions with artists across genres and we’re saying that TV could be your canvas, it could be your toolbox and you don’t have to make a programme. Do something weird and wonderful.”
The change means many more people will be able to watch some of the channel’s most popular programmes and series including Treasures of the British Library, Tate Britain’s Great Art Walks and The South Bank Show, which it gratefully took over after it was cancelled by ITV after 33 years.
Sky said the channel’s on-demand library of content would remain exclusively available to Sky and Now TV entertainment pass customers.