The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has suggested setting up a new state-subsidised arts channel on digital TV, to bring live performances to a wider audience.
Arts, cultural and heritage groups could have to broadcast their performances on a digital arts channel, if they want to get Government funding, under new proposals being floated by Jeremy Hunt.
The Culture Secretary said he wanted to help "reach the largest possible audiences free of charge", citing the example of The Space, a temporary joint venture funded by the BBC and Arts Council England. It offers what it calls "a new way to access the arts, for free", with a new multimedia platform available on computers, smartphones and Freeview television.
Trawl through the events on offer, and you can watch full performances, see live events or explore cultural archives. The site will only exist for a few months, and Mr Hunt said he wanted to build on its success, while encouraging arts organisations to embrace the full advantages of new technology.
Officials stressed that the Culture Secretary hadn't been putting forward firm proposals, which would have to come directly from the Arts Council itself. But The Space isn't the only organisation which has been offering live screenings of events, in order to reach far wider audiences.
A permanant digital channel with live broadcasts every night of our very finest cultural offerings. Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary
Glyndebourne will be showing five operas from this year's festival at around 50 cinemas across Britain. The National Theatre is showing some of its finest plays, which are often sold out, on the big screen via NT Live: cinema-goers can also catch peformances from the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.
In his speech at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Mr Hunt said The Space was offering a whole new experience - and, he went on: "Should we turn this into something much more ambitious? A permanant digital channel with live broadcasts every night of our very finest cultural offerings? Indeed, should it be a condition of government funding to supply some live content...?"
Mr Hunt insisted arts groups would embrace his idea with enthusiasm - saying it was "part of their core mission to make sure that their output is seen by as many people as possible". However he didn't put forward any suggestions over how a new channel would be managed, or funded.
Going out live
But is the experience of watching a performance on screen in any way comparable to the real, live experience? Research carried out for the National Theatre in 2010 suggested that cinema audiences watching broadcasts of a play were even more "emotionally engaged" than those who were watching the real thing on stage. Indeed the experience certainly offers a better view than that available from the cheaper seats in any theatre.
They also found that a whole new range of people turned up to see the live screenings: many of them from less affluent backgrounds than the regular theatre crowd.
Not everyone welcomes the idea: the artistic director of the English National Opera, John Berry, told the Stage earlier this year that he didn't approve of the new trend. "This obsession about putting new work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work. It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn't create new audiences, either."
However, some of his fellow directors would beg to disagree. The National Theatre has spoken of a "real sense of event" at its screenings, while Glyndebourne's general director David Pickard told the BBC that they already play to full houses and couldn't possibly meet public demand for seats. "So we couldn't ignore the opportunity presented by recent advances in technology to increase the number of chances to see our work".
The problem, as ever, is money. While people have proved willing to turn out in their thousands for major performances by some of the country's top arts companies, it's less clear whether there would be sufficient numbers to justify screening more low-key regional events.
And at a time when arts funding is precious thin on the ground, Mr Hunt has not suggested any new sources of cash to set up a new digital channel, or the facilities needed to broadcast live events around the country. The minister's call for a network of new local television channels never managed to get off the ground: this new proposal looks like it needs a large injection of cash to avoid a similar fate.