Nobody Likes the Arts?

Bravo’s decision to cancel Arts and Minds and Bravo!News really saddens me. Though I hadn’t watched Arts and Minds much in the past few years after once being a regular viewer, so I was essentially part of the problem. John Doyle of the Globe and Mail has a piece about what the cancellation means for the place of the arts on TV – for TV interviews with writers who can’t get on The Daily Show to plug their books, or a camera crew showing up at “the opening of exhibitions, new opera and ballet productions,” and awards like the Giller prize. In short, it doesn’t mean anything good.

Bravo!, the Canadian version, kept up its arts channel identity far longer than the U.S. version, which has been almost exclusively a reality TV network for the last decade. As our own Bravo has changed its identity, it has, oddly, not gone in exactly the direction of the U.S. channel. Instead its model seems to be TNT: lots of procedural shows (The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, Flashpoint), some movies. A lot of programming that doesn’t really jive jibe with arts-centric programming except in the broader sense that these shows are aimed at an overall older audience.

It’s hard to say exactly what type of cable channel could, these days, successfully carry programming about the arts. (“The arts” being broadly defined as something that needs to sell to stay in business but can’t really be massively popular.) It used to be thought sometimes that the proliferation of specialty channels would eventually create a channel for everyone, but what happened instead is that many of the channels got more and more alike; it turned out that certain types of shows are more reliable money-makers than others, and that certain types of entertainment or art could not sustain a cable channel on their own.

One of the things that has taken up some of the slack is the HD movie theatre broadcast – but that’s not really a substitute for television, since it’s not as broadly available. And to the extent that these HD showings (and the DVDs they spin off) have discussions of the arts, they’re very carefully pre-packaged intermission features, not extensive interviews. These have largely migrated to YouTube, but often without the kind of editing and production values that can turn a backstage interview into something interesting or enlightening.

This might be considered an argument for why public television needs to get back into the game. Cable TV, as it turns out, is not a substitute for PBS or the CBC when it comes to arts television. (Cable is arguably beating public television at some things – for example, HBO’s documentaries have been very good lately, while PBS has had trouble keeping up. But PBS’s documentaries still have a broad reach, both in subject matter and audience, that makes them necessary.) It might be that there simply is no room for much arts television anywhere, particularly since a show like Arts and Minds had the old variety show problem: if a viewer was not interested in the particular type of art being covered in a certain segment, he or she would move on.

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