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A home for the arts open 24/7

Jane Somerville

Foxtel’s new arts channel upends traditional assumptions that pay TV is primarily for sports lovers.
A home for the arts open 24/7

Image: Screen hosts Margaret Pomeranz and Graeme Blundell, courtesy Foxtel​.

In March this year Foxtel launched a new high definition TV channel wholly dedicated to the arts. Its programming caters to those with a passing interest as well as arts aficionados.

A myriad of programs cover all disciplines and genres including cinema, literature, music and visual art. Viewers can watch documentaries, classical and contemporary performances in the realms of opera, ballet music, theatre, dance and cabaret.

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Fraser Stark, Channel Manager, Foxtel Arts, states that a 24/7 arts channel is not a new phenomenon. ‘Foxtel has always had an arts channels in its offering to subscribers,’ citing earlier examples Ovation and Studio (a collaboration with SBS). This new initiative brings the programing in house to establish a clearly defined arts destination for Foxtel’s 2.8 million subscribers.

The wide range of programming reflects the broad reach of ‘the arts’. The early months have focused on establishing regular time slots for different genres, so as Stark explained, ‘viewers can find what they like each week’. For example, on weekdays between 6:30pm and 8:30pm, documentaries are shown with specific genres aired each night. Literature and drama are featured on Monday, Tuesday is visual arts and design, Wednesday is music and dance, Thursday is biographies and Fridays is film. After 8:30pm there are performances – on Monday the theme is opera and choral, Tuesday orchestral, Wednesday is ballet and modern dance, Thursday is orchestral and Friday a crossover of genres and classics are showcased.

So far the results have been positive – Stark has even received some feedback in form of handwritten notes – but for a niche channel he suggests ratings are not the primary indicator of success.

Instead a key motivator is that Foxtel Arts is not only broadcasting programs to Australian audiences, rather the channel is commissioning local programs, which cater to and feature Australian artists. In this way, the intention is that the viewing audience can be active participants in their own arts community. Viewers can find out about something that interests them and be encouraged to attend live performances and exhibitions in their region.

So far two locally produced shows have aired on Foxtel Arts: Screen, presented by the legendary movie critic Margaret Pomeranz and Graeme Blundell, a well-known TV critic. The other is Event with Deborah Hutton, a popular media personality with a passionate interest in the arts. The strength of both shows is in-the-studio interviews with the hosts. The conversations are lively and spontaneous. In a world where many interviews are done via Skype, or on location, watching an interview where all participants are in the same room and can build a rapport makes for engaging viewing.

Screen discusses film, TV and online content – and not just Foxtel programs. For example, one episode featured short discussions of new films, interviews with actors, Deborah Mailman (about her role in the telemovie, Redfern Now) and Danielle Cormack (star of Wentworth which is based on a contemporary version of the 1980s show Prisoner), and the online world is covered by actor, screen writer and self-confessed ‘online nerd’, Tegan Higginbotham. The second series of Screen is on air now.

Event is designed like a souped-up gig guide and covers all arts forms across Australia. It is fast-paced and Hutton’s approachable interview style means as executive producer Denise Eriksen describes, ‘you don’t have to be a hard core arts person’ to enjoy the program. The first episode, which aired at the beginning of September, (and is on air and online across the month) crossed street art, theatre and classical music.

There were solo performances by the artistic director of the ACO, violinist Richard Tognetti, to mark the ACO's 40th anniversary, and beat-box artist Tom Thum, who will performing at this month’s Brisbane Festival as well as an interview with the actor Barry Otto who is staring in Seventeen at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney. Casey McCullagh from ABC’s Radio National works alongside Hutton to present arts news and a segment featuring Australia’s leading arts critics.

Part of Event’s modus operandi is to demystify the artistic process and each episode features an Artist-in-Residence segment whereby an artist works on an artwork in the studio on the day of production. The first episode saw Tim Phibs create a swirling abstract work mixing influences from street art with the fluid movements of action painting.

A more whimsical segment, named the Event Proust Questionnaire, unearths some interesting personality traits from familiar faces in the arts industry. Part psychological test, part party game, the first episode saw actor Suzie Porter pair with Steve Mouzakis, (her co-star in The Death and the Maiden at the Sydney Theatre Company) to ask each other a series of curly questions. Their answers have them – and their audience – in giggles.

Looking forward, Foxtel Arts’ dedication to promoting home grown content is further demonstrated through collaboration with local organisations. In 2016 Foxtel Arts will be broadcasting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s program and this will complement the content broadcast from Europe and America. These partnerships entwine the channel to the local arts communities.

And as Stark indicated, these local collaborations are just the beginning.

Screen airs Friday nights at 7.30pm and Event airs on the first Sunday of every month at 5pm. To find out more about Foxtel Arts programs and encore screenings, visit www.foxtelarts.com.au

About the author

Jane Somerville is a freelance writer and editor based in Brisbane.