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Missing link in the arts chain Artsworld's identity will not be dependent on the highbrow vapourings of a precious coterie

THERE are at least two good reasons why Glasgow was chosen as the venue for today's media launch of Artsworld, Britain's first digital TV channel exclusively devoted to the arts.

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For one thing, there's the well-kent Glaswegian pedigree of Artsworld's chairman, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the Glasgow Academy laddie who pioneered Channel 4 and latterly went on to oversee then Royal Opera House. More to the point, there's an important message in Artsworld having opted to leave its London HQ and unveil its forthcoming programme schedules in the most northerly branch of the Groucho Club, Groucho St Jude's in Glasgow's Bath Street. As Artsworld's chief executive, John Hambley, explains: ''We're deliberately trying to ensure that we're not a London-centric channel, and we certainly don't want to be perceived as a bunch of arty Londoners. ''We're going to take notice of all the Celtic nations and the English regions. Thus, while I can't go into details, I can assure you that our opening programmes will include contributions from living, breathing Scotsmen - although sadly not any Scottish women.'' While Hambley can't himself boast a tartan lineage, he can point to an established TV background in shows with qualities that Artsworld would hope to emulate: well-made, non-elitist, popular. For Hambley was once head of Euston Films, the Thames TV offshoot responsible for Minder. Accordingly, Hambley is keen to establish that Artsworld's identity will not be dependent on the precious highbrow vapourings of a pompous coterie of self-styled experts, many of them affecting green carnations in their fedoras. ''We can all see and enjoy all the arts, whether we do so by opening a book or having a favourite poem,'' says Hambley. ''We looked very carefully at the arts coverage offered by the current broadcasters. The BBC is reducing its arts coverage. It's never been huge on ITV; it's esoteric on Channel 4, and it's non-existent on Channel 5. Yet millions of people go to the theatre and to art galleries. Millions of people enjoy music. ''We therefore see Artsworld as the missing link. It's a channel for all the family, and not solely for an exclusive bunch of intellectuals. We will explain things if need be. No viewer need be ashamed to think to themselves: 'I really don't know a lot about this, and would like to be introduced to it by a friend.' ''Nor are we in the business of talking down to people. We won't be constantly interposing lots of talking heads between the audience and the art or the artist. We won't be doing endless review shows, and neither will we be reviewing things that the bulk of the population won't have been able to see or experience at first hand for themselves. ''We'd hope to be able to present artists speaking about their own work, explaining their methods and themselves - if it's a visual artist, say, we see them talking in their studio. As an example, on our opening night, we'll have the architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim, Frank Gehry, wandering around inside it, providing a guided tour. ''Artsworld will be found in the entertainment section of your electronic programme guide rather than the educational one. We will educate, of course, but we're primarily meant to be enjoyed.'' Artsworld is first and foremost a commercial entity. So is the channel worried that, no matter how populist it might be in its intent, TV arts programming has traditionally tended to draw fairly small audiences? Hambley says: ''This is the beauty of digital TV. In established terrestrial TV terms, 'fairly small' means an audience which isn't of Coronation Street size. But if you look at ITV's flagship arts magazine, The South Bank Show, you see that it draws an average audience of around 2.8 million. ''That's actually a very big audience in real terms, and we're certainly going to be very happy with viewing figures which ought to rate in the hundreds of thousands. So when some people dismiss the arts as a minority interest, it's a very sizeable minority.'' Funded by a consortium which includes Guardian Media Group and Caledonian Investments, Artsworld is an independent company hoping to follow in the footsteps of such successful arts channels as Time Warner's Ovation in the US, along with the French Mezzo channel, and Classica, soon to branch out into Spain from Italy and Germany. How much of Artsworld's programme output will the channel originate itself, and how much will be bought in from its established global counterparts? ''We will be going for 40% original commissions, with the rest being acquired from around the world,'' says Hambley. ''We'll definitely be expecting to hear from Scottish independent production companies, too.'' Aye. Surely indeed some clued-up Caledonian indie out there will be able to add to Artsworld's opening schedule by providing a programme or two about living, breathing Scottish women artists. Continues Hambley: ''We're for every viewer with a specific or a general interest in the arts, so we'll be covering classical music, architecture, design, opera, dance, the visual arts . . . everything.'' Given Hambley's own CV, might we expect to see a special Artsworld season featuring sundry directors' cuts of Minder? ''I'll never cease to look back admiringly on my work with George Cole,'' says Hambley, ''but with Artsworld, you'll perhaps be more likely to see Sir Laurence Olivier on a regular basis.''

n Artsworld's output throughout its opening weekend on December 2-3 will be available in free, unencrypted form to everyone who currently subscribes to Sky digital.

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