Arts Channel 'packed with great shows'

ATTRACTIVELY OPPOSED: Robert De Niro, left, faces away from his father, Robert snr.
ATTRACTIVELY OPPOSED: Robert De Niro, left, faces away from his father, Robert snr.

Like father, like son - two handsome men. On the left, Robert De Niro: one of the greatest actors of his generation, his career more recently tarnished by his perplexing decision to appear in all sorts of rubbish. On the right, his late father, Robert De Niro Sr: abstract expressionist painter, depressive dandy, closeted gay.

The latter was to die in obscurity, his art marginalised by changing tastes, while the former attempts to belatedly shine some light on his old man's life and career in Remembering The Artist: Robert De Niro Sr, a short HBO doco which screens on the Arts Channel in August.

Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver - De Niro the younger has himself painted some of the most enduring cinematic portraits of our age, and here tries to give shape, texture and weight to the life of his father, another complex character who experienced more than his fair share of jealousy, disappointment and rage.

I've seen an advance screening, and it's quite something to witness the artist's only child and namesake at age 70, looking back over the life of his creatively thwarted father, choking up as he considers what it must be like to be gifted and hungry but to miss your moment.

"It's a great show, isn't it?" says Chris De Bazin from a noisy corner of an open-plan office at Sky TV.

"But, of course, there's nothing unusual in that. Our schedules are packed with great shows. We just need a few more people to find us and watch them."

De Bazin has been general manager of Sky's Arts Channel for the past seven years. Before he got into television, he was, I'm amazed to discover, an undercover cop. Did he inhale? Of course. But smoking pot was all in the line of duty, and he says he never enjoyed the effect.

Less enjoyable still was the stress of living under an assumed identity, hanging out with drug dealers and gang members, terrified your cover could be blown at any time with potentially deadly consequences.

Thank heavens, then, for a chance meeting in the now-demolished Aurora Tavern opposite Sky City, once a favoured haunt of off-duty policemen and TVNZ workers, where De Bazin was offered an alternative career in television in 1989.

After stints at TV3 and Prime, he took over the running of the Arts Channel, and estimates the audience has grown to around 20,000 pay-per-view subscribers under his watch.

"We're doing all right, but I don't think Sky will be buying new company cars on the back of the Arts Channel! It's always good to attract more subscribers, and letting them know there's more variety than they expected is a good way to do that."

To that end, De Bazin is about to give his station an almighty kick up the arts with a new name, look and logo, and a content overhaul designed to attract a younger demographic. To entice this new audience, the first week in August (Aug 4-10) will be an open week - the newly renamed Sky Arts will be free to all SKY basic subscribers.

"For the last seven years, we've focused on art, literature, opera, ballet, and there was a fear that we'd be rubbished as an arts channel if we broadened that out too much. But what's become obvious from our research is that a lot of intelligent people who like art are really just curious in general, and they want a wider definition of what constitutes art programming."

Coinciding with the open week, there are new shows aplenty, including a couple of series you might have previously expected to find on Rialto or SoHo. Reading the publicity blurb, Spanish period drama Grand Hotel (Thurs, Aug 7, 8.30pm) sounds like Downton Abbey with added chorizo, while Mammon (Sat Aug 9, 8.30pm) is frost-bitten Nordic noir in the vein of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge.

De Bazin also mentions a musical profile of a Japanese punk-jazz flute player, and two top-shelf documentaries: Rich Hill - winner of this year's US Grand Jury Prize at Sundance - and a brain-boggler called Passion and Power: The Technology of The Orgasm.

"Sadly, the commercial realities of free-to-air TV rule out a lot of arts shows, so it's down to niche subscription channels like ours to cover this kind of cultural content. Some people probably dismiss us as elitist, but if they gave us a look, they'd find that's not the case. If they're interested in visual art, the humanities, books, jazz, architecture and indie music, they come to us."

De Bazin is an artist himself, building fine furniture in his spare time. It runs in the family; his rellies carved the balustrades at Dunedin's Larnach's Castle. But he loves his day job as a television executive, not least because it beats the hell out of being an undercover cop.

REMEMBERING THE ARTIST: ROBERT DE NIRO SR airs on the Arts Channel August 5 at 8.30pm

Sunday Star Times