James Hunt, Sky Arts

12 November, 2009 | By Robert Shepherd

Sky Arts has gone from having no hours of commissioned programmes to more than 200 hours a year. Head of programming James Hunt tells Lucy Rouse the secret of its success.

Can Sky Arts really do for arts programming what Sky Sports has done for its genre or Sky News has done for 24-hour TV news? That’s the ambition of the channel’s new head of programming James Hunt, appointed in October under John Cassy.

“I’m not putting us in the same bracket as Sky Sports but in the last three years, Sky Arts has gone from having zero hours of commissioned programming to airing more than 200 hours of originations a year,” says Hunt. Original production now accounts for about 25% of the Sky Arts schedule.

Sky Arts evolved out of Artsworld, the subscription channel launched back in 2000 by Channel 4’s first ever chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs. Artsworld was never going to get huge audiences, but filled a niche in the multichannel spectrum. It also went some way to smoothing the ruffled feathers of those who said there wasn’t enough high culture on terrestrial TV.

In 2003, as Artsworld battled competition from BBC4, BSkyB took a 50% share in the channel. Sky then bought it outright in 2005 before relaunching it as Sky Arts in March 2007.

A former executive producer with Liberty Bell, Hunt controls all content across Sky Arts 1 and 2, whether it’s originated programming or acquisitions. He’s been here before, as he was seconded to Sky Arts in July 2008 while Cassy did a stint at the (also Rupert Murdoch-owned) Wall Street Journal for six months. Sky Arts 2 was launched during that time.

Hunt - who is speaking on the Sky commissioner panel at The Media Festival on 20 November - says the overall philosophy of Sky Arts is to make the arts more accessible to more people. He’s diplomatic but not above having a dig at other broadcasters’ attitude to arts programming. “Sky is very happy to take over some parts the terrestrials seem reluctant to play in,” he says.