How Sky Arts Commissioner Phil Edgar-Jones beat the BBC
“Telly’s almost over now. It’s almost finished, isn’t it?” says Phil Edgar-Jones. Which is not what you expect to hear from the boss of a television channel. But Edgar-Jones, whose career has taken him from The Big Breakfast and Big Brother to his current job as director of Sky Arts, is perfectly sanguine. He means television as we have always known it: tuning in to particular channels at particular times of the day, on a TV set in the corner of the room. These days, young people are watching 15-second videos on TikTok, while older people have discovered the joys of streaming and the convenience of sitting down to a show at a time of their choosing. “Telly is only a small part of the content ecosystem now,” says Edgar-Jones. “Think of all the other things that are available.”
Edgar-Jones took charge of Sky Arts in 2014, along with the broadcaster’s entertainment shows. At the time, its arts channel was barely on anyone’s radar, and the BBC was considered the home of serious cultural programming. How times change. BBC Four is now effectively a repeat channel, and Sky Arts has built its audience to an average of 13 million viewers a month. It added an extra two million per week on being added to Freeview in 2020. Up to that point, it had appeared to be wall-to-wall André Rieu, his concerts played on an eternal loop. These days, Rieu is still a protected part of the line-up – Edgar-Jones says he loves the conductor and would never drop him: “We’d get letters” – but he appears only once a week.
In his place are new commissions, still aimed at music lovers of a certain vintage. They include Brian Johnson and Mark Knopfler’s Good Times, in which the AC/DC and Dire Straits stars romp through the history of popular music, plus a series on the greatest guitar riffs in history. “We do rock ‘n’ roll weekends, for people my age who are up at night, who’ve maybe had a couple of beers and think, ‘Oh, Fleetwood Mac. I’m going to watch this,’” explains Edgar-Jones, who has a reputation in the industry as one of its most affable and unpretentious executives. It’s not all “dad rock”: upcoming shows include a documentary about WB Yeats’s “unsung” sisters, Lily and Lolly, and a film about Katherine Hepburn featuring previously unheard audio interviews.
The average age of a Sky Arts viewer is “late 50s, early to mid-60s”, and there is none of the BBC’s frantic chasing of youth. At the heart of the channel is Melvyn Bragg, still hosting The South Bank Show brilliantly at the age of 83. His future, like Rieu’s, is safe. “When I took over the channel,” says Edgar-Jones, “one of the things that I pledged was that as long as I was clinging onto my job, Melvyn would be there too.” The channel’s most popular shows, Portrait Artist of the Year and Landscape Artist of the Year, are co-hosted by Joan Bakewell, who turns 90 in April.
But Sky Arts is not merely a golden oldie channel. Life & Rhymes, a celebration of the spoken word that features young performance poets, beat Ant and Dec to the Best Entertainment Program Bafta in 2021. Book programs on television, meanwhile, are notoriously difficult to get right, but the Sky Arts Book Club has cracked it, featuring intelligent conversation from hosts Elizabeth Day, Simon Savidge and Andi Oliver.