Cultural channel ARTE
Far from Mass Taste

ARTE broadcasting centre in Strasbourg
ARTE broadcasting centre in Strasbourg | Photo (detail): © ARTE

Mainstream? No thanks! Since its launch in the early 1990s, the public service channel ARTE has developed a full cross-media programme that knows no cultural borders. Its UPS: a multi-national programme in two languages.

It is 30 May 1992, seven o’clock pm. The cultural channel ARTE goes on the air for the first time. The programme on this day lasts five hours. Less than two years before, Germany and France signed an agreement to launch the “European cultural programme ARTE”, a gesture of friendship and understanding between nations. It was preceded by long negotiations, which all went back to the same idea: the founding fathers, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl and Lothar Späth, wanted to start a joint, public service TV station that would contribute to a rapprochement between the Germans and the French by means of culture.

Loyal following for experimental programme

ARTE’s mission was to map cultural trends regardless of national borders. The broadcaster wanted to offer a platform to ambitious young artists and a home to directors, producers and artists that stand in the shadow of an increasingly commercialised television market geared to mass appeal. ARTE (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne) became a Franco-German joint venture of ARD, ZDF, the German public service broadcasters, and the French channel La Sept.

Today ARTE still enjoys a unique position in the global TV landscape: the broadcaster produces a programme for viewers in two countries and in two languages. And this programme offers a variety of themes and genres; it is characterised by eagerness to experiment and an aesthetics that refuses to serve the mass market and can rely upon a small – in Germany the market share is about one percent – but loyal following.

From avant-garde to gaga

Alongside television and feature films, which make up one third of ARTE’s programme, another focus is documentary films: they make up a handsome forty percent. The topics range from the castles of Europe and the Arab Spring to saving dolphins in Peru. Ten percent of the programme content treats the performing arts – music and dance, concerts, theatres productions and the transmission of festivals. In addition, the “late show” presents independent productions from around the world. Usually after midnight, young talents are given a platform. Night owls can watch on ARTE innovative television ranging from avant-garde to gaga, from the experimental to the self-referential. Another trademark and a bold TV innovation is the twice weekly theme night round a guiding idea with contributions from various genres. The broadcaster can afford all this because it is financed to ninety-five percent by the television fees charged in Germany and France. In 2011 ARTE had about 424 million euros at its disposal. A large part of the money spent for the programme went into European projects.

Co-productions with other countries

In 2011 around twenty-nine percent of the programmes were produced in Germany and thirty-three percent in France. ARTE buys about a quarter of the programme content from other European countries. Fifteen percent comes from North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia. Programme exchanges, cooperations, partnerships – ARTE has cooperative agreements with many public service broadcasters in Europe. Along with Austria (the broadcaster ORF), Belgium (RTBF) and Poland (TVP), its European partners include Greece (ERT), Switzerland (SRG, SSR), Sweden (SVT) and Finland (YLE). Three-quarters of the broadcasted series, reports and documentaries are premieres and are aired on other European channels only after they have appeared on ARTE.

The public service channel Danmarks Radio (DR) is also a partner of ARTE. One sensational co-production with DR was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a film about the paramilitary mass murders in Indonesia in the 1960s. The documentary stirred up much discussion at the 2013 Berlinale. The Pirate Bay away from Keyboard, a documentary by Simon Klose, shows the numerous lawsuits against the founder of the illegal Swedish file-sharing portal. Its special feature: the film premiered on the Internet and could be downloaded for free. Under the category of “occasional partnerships” also come purchases of TV programmes. ARTE has aired, for instance, the Danish political drama Borgen. The series, a DR production, tells of the rise of the politician Brigitte Nyborg to the position of Prime Minister.

The tale of power and intrigue reaped record ratings for Borgen in Denmark and has already won several European television awards. By contrast with the successful political dramas from the United States, many of the themes treated in Borgen seem fairly familiar to German and French viewers: pensions, immigration policy, coalition disputes, female quotas – all issues being discussed in Europe.

ARTE online

ARTE can be received across the entire continent. Since January 2012, ARTE is also available as livestream on the Internet. In this area too the broadcaster wants to extend its progressive policy and open further creative spaces. Everyone can and everyone should contribute content, whether video and media art, photography or architecture. ARTE Creative sees itself as a network, as an artistic platform and as a creative think tank for young, experiment-loving artists. The service has been well received: 3,500 creative people are already members of the community. The motto of this virtual laboratory applies not only to ARTE’s online programme: “Art brings chaos into order!” Thus ARTE has made the leap onto the Internet so desired by other public service broadcasters in Germany. The goal of building an online creative community, with which the channel can develop new editorial forms, is ambitious. But the active participation through all social media tools shows that the idea works.