Don’t mention the ‘A’ word, says BBC chief keen to shed arts shows’ stuffy image

Suzy Klein BBC - Jude Edginton/BBC
Suzy Klein BBC - Jude Edginton/BBC

Branding BBC shows as “arts” can be off-putting for audiences, the broadcaster’s head of arts has said.

Suzy Klein said that the corporation must find ways to reach a new and younger audience who might consider “arts” to denote stuffy programming.

“I’ve hardly ever met a person who doesn’t love music or have a favourite band or enjoys gaming,” Klein said. “Everybody has their thing, and I think once you call it ‘arts’, it can be problematic.”

The BBC retains a loyal audience who do respond to arts programmes, Klein said.

She added: “We fly the flag for the really gold-plated, reputational, public service bit of what the BBC does best, where we can tell stories with context and with nuance and richness. And we know we have an audience for that, and we really treasure and value that audience.

“What we’re also ambitious to do, though, is to take the fight out to everybody else.”

This will involve making shows for BBC Three, which take a more youth-focused approach and a broader idea of what the “arts” connotes. The first example is a documentary about Virgil Abloh, the first black artistic director of Louis Vuitton.

Virgil Abloh - Reuters/Charles Platiau/File Photo
Virgil Abloh - Reuters/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Abloh, who died of cancer last year at the age of 41, was also a DJ and designed trainers for Nike, furniture for Ikea and cars for Mercedes-Benz in addition to his fashion career.

The term “arts” puts “quite narrow parameters on people’s expectations”, Klein said, adding: “They expect it to mean visual arts or literature, and not books in general but a very particular kind of literary fiction. There is a hierarchy in the arts.

“It can feel off-putting to certain kinds of people, and can make them think, ‘This isn’t for me’. My teenage kids and their friends, for example, wouldn’t watch something if it was called ‘arts’.”

The term can also put off people who live outside major cities, Klein said, noting that the BBC’s previous work with arts institutions has been “very London-centric”.

Lucy Worsley BBC - Tom Hayward/BBC
Lucy Worsley BBC - Tom Hayward/BBC

The BBC will continue to make more traditional arts programmes for BBC Two, including a profile of Frida Kahlo, a Lucy Worsley series about Agatha Christie, and a series in which Simon Schama charts post-war history through the artists, writers and musicians who fought for democracy and equality.

Another documentary will tell the story of Una Marson, a poet, playwright and campaigner who became the first black producer and broadcaster at the BBC.

Marson joined the BBC’s Empire Service during the Second World War and, through her programmes, gave voice to Caribbean writers and intellectuals.

“People in this country had not heard voices like Una Marson’s and the ones she brought to us, and we take that for granted now,” said Klein. “She was an amazing force of nature and she has been quite forgotten. That is part of our job, to resurface those stories.”

‘Big television that grabs attention’

Klein was speaking at a launch of the BBC’s new factual programmes.

Clare Mottershead, the BBC’s lead commissioner for factual entertainment, said broadcasters needed to make “big television that grabs the attention” in an effort to hook young viewers.

“I can’t get my child off TikTok, and we’ve got to do something to bring the eyeballs back to our screens,” she said.

BBC shows for this demographic include Go Hard Or Go Home, a reality show in which eight young people who feel “stuck in a rut” or are coping with mental health issues compete in a series of challenges on a tropical island.

Celebrity shows include Alan and Amanda’s Italian Job, in which Alan Carr and Amanda Holden renovate a one-euro property in an Italian village; Planet Sex, in which Cara Delevingne explores gender and sexuality; and Trailblazers, which sends Ruby Wax, Mel B and Emily Atack to follow in the footsteps of Isabella Bird, a 19th-century explorer who trekked 800 miles across the mountains of Colorado.