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Sky Arts 2 brings diva fever to culture wars.

LONDON In the U.K., the mighty BBC and iconoclastic Channel 4 are justly proud of their coverage of the arts. But they are about to be upstaged the culture stakes by BSkyB, which built its business on sports and movies.

Next month the News Corp.-backed paybox is splitting the Artsworld channel into two: Sky Arts 1, where auds head bang to Iggy Pop or Sky Arts 2 where they can enjoy opera.

"We realized that a one-size-fits-all approach was no longer suitable for Sky Arts," says BSkyB entertainment top per Sophie Turner-Laing. "If you're going to broadcast an opera in its entirety, a lot of space is required in the schedule--and passionate opera fans don't always appreciate it if they can't get what they want because we're running Johnny Cash concerts back-to-back."

Sky Arts channel director James Hunt says there was something "schizoid" about having Jimi Hendrix on one night followed by Verdi the next. "Launching a second channel means we're effectively doubling our output and raising the bar for arts TV in the same way that Sky has raised the bar for sports, movies and news," Hunt says.

To complete the revamped Sky Arts package, which debuts Oct. 20, Sky Arts HD's lineup will take fare from both arts channels.

Skeptics point to the timing of BSkyB's increased commitment to arts coverage just as U.K. regulators complete their review of public service broadcasting.

"Undoubtedly Sky Arts is a fig leaf, but it is a very impressive one and tries a lot harder than is actually necessary," opines a British TV veteran.

Turner-Laing, a former acquisitions maven at the BBC, says: "Our approach to arts is not about education; it's about entertainment."

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With about 75% of the material either acquired or co-produced (Sky Arts lists New York's Metropolitan Opera House among its partners), the satcaster cannot compete with the amount of original arts shows commissioned by the BBC. But it is giving the Beeb a run for its money in breadth of coverage. One of Sky Arts' flagship skeins is "The Book Show," the only dedicated program of its kind on British TV.

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Author:Clarke, Steve
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 15, 2008
Words:358
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