Arts programming at the BBC: behind the scenes
Commissioning editor Mark Bell on the important collaborations with the art world that keep television relevant
By Iain Millar. Features, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 23 June 2010
The fundamental challenge facing major public art museums is clear: how to mount exhibitions that attract visitors, while resisting blatant commercialism and maintaining their mission to inform and educate—at a price they can afford. An almost identical dilemma faces commissioning editors at major public broadcasters: how to make television and radio programmes that attract viewers, while fending off the opposing accusations of dumbing down and elitism. With this in mind, The Art Newspaper spoke to Mark Bell, the BBC’s commissioning editor for arts, as the UK braced itself for deep public spending cuts, and as the BBC prepares to scale back some of its operations.
Bell was friendly, if a little cagey and ready to defend when not being attacked. But in answer to our first question he couldn’t have been clearer. Was he, given the current political and economic climate, expecting budget cuts? “I’m absolutely not expecting cuts in terms of my budget at the BBC—I’ve had assurances that we’re safe from that.”
For now? “Not even for now. Mark Thompson [the BBC’s director-general], at the beginning of last year, made a big statement about the arts. It’s been made clear that there are no plans to reduce our budget.” Of course, Bell can’t anticipate what the new Con-Lib administration might do to the licence fee—the BBC’s principal source of income.
Bell’s main focus is overseeing arts programming on the BBC’s four TV channels, BBCs 1, 2, 3 and 4, although he has some input into other strands, including BBC radio. The channels have distinct remits: from the “broad family audience” of BBC1 (which tends to show accessible series such as the “Seven Ages of Britain”, hosted by household names, in this case David Dimbleby) to BBC4, which Bell describes as “the home of arts and culture” catering to a more knowledgeable audience (such as critic Ben Lewis’s two scathing documentaries on “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble”).
Bell said that whatever the strand, he wants to foster closer links between the BBC and arts organisations. “The BBC is going to have to work exceedingly hard to help arts institutions out in the future,” he said. “One of the things we have to do is partner with them, to work constructively with them [as] the impact [of public spending cuts] may be tough. The institutions are aware of that and we need to do what we can to expose them to audiences in whatever way we can.”
“Modern Masters”, the recent BBC1 series on Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol presented by Alastair Sooke, is a case in point, engendering a show of the same name at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (until 23 June). It’s a project that Bell is clearly enthused by. “It’s really nice, they’ve got some great Matisse and Dalí posters that I’d never seen before. It was great to get the shared benefit out of that. [It can] push people to the gallery to see the art itself—TV’s never going to be a replacement for that.”
He also pointed to a recent collaboration which saw the BBC release archive footage devoted to Henry Moore on TV and online to coincide with Tate Britain’s major retrospective (until 8 August). “The Henry Moore collaboration, which included a special edition of the ‘Culture Show’ [the BBC’s principal arts magazine programme], was a way of exploiting the archive,” Bell said. “We’ve got a great back catalogue of arts programmes, but we can’t just unleash a million hours of it on an unsuspecting population because they wouldn’t know what to make of it. If there’s an event out there in the real world that we can use as a hook, then it’s a good reason for us to say we’ve got all this stuff. We did a programme about why Henry Moore was such a ‘television artist’ and used documentaries [by film-maker John Read] that hadn’t been seen for ages. So you get the broadcast experience, you get the online archive and you get the exhibition. It helps both parties. Inviting collaborations like that is something I’m really interested in.”
Bell was keen to talk up “The Culture Show”, no doubt in response to the non-stop criticism it has received since launching in 2004. Changing formats, shifting time-slots and accusations of (at best) middle-brow arts analysis by presenters, some with limited expertise in the arts, have been constant. He clearly wants to indicate a new era of stability: now “The Culture Show” has reverted to its original scheduled slot of 7pm on BBC2 on Thursday evenings, has a new editor in Janet Lee, a veteran of BBC and Channel 4 arts programming, and has a regular anchor in critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. But is it true that it consistently attracts fewer than a million viewers?
“It does get under a million from time to time,” Bell conceded. Is that a large enough audience? “I’d be happy with it getting a million. It does get up to one-and-a-half [million] and we’re keen to build on that. I don’t think that in the end we should judge these things purely on ratings, because I think that’s not what it’s about. I’m not going to get too worried about week-on-week audience figures. I’m worried about what people make of [the programmes] and whether they’re part of the national cultural conversation.” (Later he added that “we’re absolutely open for risk-taking in that area and Janet [Lee] loves to come at things from surprising directions”.)
Bell’s colleague, BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow, recently said in a speech that: “Nothing frustrates a certain kind of serious-minded critic more than a certain kind of populist, factual television.” Would Bell apply the same thinking to a show such as the recent “School of Saatchi”, where young art students competed for the patronage of the famously reclusive collector (Saatchi, notoriously, didn’t appear in his eponymous programme)?
“‘School of Saatchi’ was a brave attempt to get into an area of the arts that many people find—and I think even an art critic would agree with this—alienating,” Bell said. “Many people just don’t get what these artists are up to. And I think that extends as far as the Turner Prize, to be honest. The idea [was to] make a series on a mainstream channel that actually tries to get into that and says this is what they’re trying to do, and also has some fun with it. It’s not the only way of approaching modern or contemporary art. But, at the same time, would I do that again? Possibly not, but it’s something I’m glad we did. If you stuck with it and took it seriously, there was quite a lot that illuminated the way contemporary artists work.”
So, how might a reader of The Art Newspaper, possibly a dealer, a collector or a museum curator, persuade Bell to follow up a programme suggestion? How does the commissioning process operate and is there a support network for people who might have the ideas but aren’t necessarily programme makers?
“I am the support network,” he said, “in that people come to me with ideas, but not every idea comes to me with a producer or a production company attached or a channel in mind. That’s not necessarily a problem. I have people I work with and together we will try and marry ideas with approaches to create something that will work for a programme or a channel. All I can say is that I am happy to engage in a dialogue. I talk all the time to gallery curators, writers and artists. They say ‘you should do something on this’, the idea gestates and hopefully comes to something in time.”
What is his relationship with the new arts editor of BBC News, Will Gompertz, the former director of media at the Tate, whose appointment has attracted some criticism for his large salary and relative inexperience as an independent journalist?
“Will’s employed by News, so he works as part of the news journalism area, which is separate from the rest of BBC commissioning—for obvious reasons, it needs its objectivity. However, we do both attend an arts board that is a regular gathering of people at the top of the BBC, where we discuss how coherent the arts are as we offer them…Watch this space. I look forward to working with Will…but he’s [only just] landed on the air and [dealing with that] is his primary objective at the moment.”
Bell also indicated that he may have projects lined up with Melvyn Bragg, presenter of commercial broadcaster ITV’s flagship arts vehicle “The South Bank Show”, winding up after a 32-year run (Bragg has made other BBC shows and is a long-running presenter on BBC radio).
So does such a tireless enthusiast for the BBC’s remit—“I’m here because I want the programming content that I create to be good for the arts”—ever think “that didn’t work, I didn’t like that”? Bell paused. “I think television can sometimes be too clever about trying to create a format for something to make it seem more appealing. I’d rather go straight at something when in doubt. If that sounds like a carefully worded answer, I think the direct approach is often the best.”
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