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Introducing BBC Arts Online

Peter Maniura

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Two years ago this month, I was part of the team which launched The Space – the collaboration between the BBC and Arts Council England which provided a new digital arena for the publication and development of art online. The ground-breaking project launched as part of the Cultural Olympiad was well-received and an incredibly rewarding project to work on – I was its first ‘curator’. The Space will be back in a few weeks, but this week I’m leading on the launch of BBC Arts Online: a new, improved and expanded arts service from the BBC which for the first time draws together all the BBC arts coverage across TV, radio, iPlayer and online in one place.

That’s quite a tall order. There’s wealth of artistic content across the BBC to link up, after all. But our aim for BBC Arts Online remains simple: to put the audience in the best seat in the house for arts events across the country and to offer rich and stimulating journeys into a wealth of contextual and archive material.

To do this we’re engaging in “horizontal innovation” – an intriguing description given by our colleagues in Future Media to link up technologies and content delivery systems in ways which haven’t been tried before – so, everything might not be perfect from the start. Rest assured though, this is certainly a service that is going to grow and evolve both technically and editorially over the next few months.

Communication about technology isn’t the only element that has been essential for this project. As well as collaboration between colleagues in Future Media, Knowledge and Learning and developers and technologists in Salford, Glasgow and London, we have worked with editorial staff in TV and Radio Arts and have all been engaged in shaping the proposition and helping to make it happen in a way in which everyone feels they can contribute to and support. In my more than 30 years at the BBC it’s been the most extensive, challenging and - ultimately - inspiring example of the BBC working together that I have ever experienced. And, we’ve only just got things underway.

Exciting though the technical and editorial challenges are, the heart of BBC Arts Online is the art itself, and specifically our collaboration with artists and art institutions throughout the UK. I’ve been particularly encouraged by the willingness of so many to get involved and take risks.

Our first major live stream will be from Imperial War Museum North on Saturday 17th May as part of Museums at Night. We’ll be streaming live from Manchester half an hour before the big BBC Two documentary from the National Museum of Scotland, an event which inaugurates the new television arts strand.

Then at 8pm, we’ll continue our live stream, the centrepiece of which will be a complete performance of choreographer Russell Maliphant’s new work inspired by images of the First World War, Second Breath. It will be danced by English National Ballet in the main gallery of the museum surrounded by artillery pieces and aircraft. I was amazed and delighted when Russell and the company agreed to do this, as we and they will only get access to the gallery space at 3.30pm that afternoon. From then until transmission, we have to set and rehearse the whole piece – no easy feat given that the company have never danced this complex and challenging new work in a non-theatrical space before. There’s a boldness in that. The kind of boldness which I hope will characterise what BBC Arts Online will be able to do.

Another initiative that I am very pleased to see coming to fruition is Books at the BBC. On BBC Arts Online, the BBC’s literary content will be drawn together for the first time, featuring both a television and radio archive, links to relevant content on other BBC sites including Radio 4 Book Club, Book of the Week and Radio 2 Book Club. Books at the BBC will also build collections around contemporary writers with five major authors being featured at launch with readings, interviews, articles and a range of archive stretching back more than a quarter of a century.

As well as the great American writer Philip Roth, who will be profiled on Imagine next week, the four other authors Jung Chang, Helen Dunmore, Toni Morrison and Sebastian Faulks, will all be featuring in complete sessions from the Hay Festival which will be streamed live, starting on May 24th.

It’s the ability of BBC Arts Online to curate this contemporary literary content and then link it to the biggest ever online offering from Hay which is really ground-breaking. Alongside the wealth of coverage on BBC Radio and Television, we’ll also be streaming at least two complete author sessions a day from Hay with a daily Haylights package which will give the audience the best of the day’s events. We hope to cover between 30-40 sessions over nine days, producing more than 22 hours of streamed material.

This is the first time that such extensive live streaming will have been possible from Hay, a geographical area of the country with considerable though not insurmountable connectivity challenges; it will be made possible by the use of two IP satellites and by the technical expertise of David Chalmers, Principal Technologist, and his team. I’d also like to point out that the people who will ultimately make BBC Arts Online happen will be our wonderful team here in Pacific Quay in Glasgow - drawn from BBC Arts Production and Knowledge & Learning Online, working together for the first time.

By the time you read this, the new site will be up and running – wish us luck. Do please your share your thoughts about using the new service below.


Peter Maniura is Launch Director, BBC Arts Online




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