Ovation sees 'real opportunity'

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More than 10 years after its launch, arts-themed network Ovation TV is aiming to fill a void in the cable and satellite landscape as it makes its nationwide debut today with a revamped focus.

Ovation, which touts itself as the only network devoted to the arts and arts-related programming, launched in 1996 with a somewhat narrow focus on classical and fine arts. Today, the ad-supported network begins anew with a broader focus and without direct competition from such networks as Bravo and A&E, which have abandoned their concentration on the arts. A multiplatform initiative that includes a tuned-up Web site and VOD offerings also is in the works.

"I don't think the idea to launch a channel focused on art is a new concept; I think the idea of how we are going to be approaching it is different and coming at the right time," Ovation COO Ron Garfield said. "You've got a number of other networks that were very successful in building their brands around art-related programming, but their focus changed. My partners and I saw this as a real opportunity."

Changes were set in motion in August when the network was acquired by a group of investors led by Ovation CEO Charles Segars (creator and executive producer of the film "National Treasure") and Ovation chairman Ken Solomon (also chairman and CEO of the Tennis Channel) that also included Hubbard Media Group, Perry Capital, Arcadia Investment Partners, Corporate Partners II and the Weinstein Co.

Although the Weinsteins' involvement drew early interest that it would amount to a broader play, the company has only a minority stake at this juncture.

Ovation is launching on satellite via a deal inked this year with DirecTV, which is giving the network a national television footprint for the first time with a reach of about 15 million customers, nearly triple its previous reach. DirecTV senior vp programming Dan Hartman is confident that the Ovation team will "bring the arts to life."

"This is an audience that hasn't really been served by 24/7 linear networks," Hartman said. "(Networks such as Bravo and A&E) are becoming more general entertainment, so there is not a network serving the 'arts and entertainment' audience. They made a great presentation (when pitching DirecTV) and brought real passion to that category."

Debra Sharon Davis, president and CEO of business development media strategists Davis Communications Inc./the Davis Group, said Ovation does face certain challenges in today's marketplace.

"The challenge will be how it's marketed and branded with a clarity that translates to the currently bifurcated consumer," she said. "The onus on this veteran group is to do things differently and be reminded that the 21st century consumer is a far different animal than the audience of the 1990s."

Garfield and his colleagues have given Ovation's programming a face-lift, broadening the definition of art beyond orchestral music, opera and ballet to include photography, film, contemporary music artists such as Kurt Cobain and Madonna and even tattoo art. Part of the idea is to make the arts "more accessible to viewers in their daily lives," the company said.

"The walls are down, and almost anything that people would use 'art' in association with, Ovation will explore," said Kris Slava, senior vp programming and production at Ovation. "We're not going to be limited in what we look at. ... We're going to talk about all of the pursuits that people are passionate about."

The programming plan is to theme each night around genres (daytime will continue to emphasize classical and fine arts), including performance art, such as dance, theater and opera (Mondays); profiles of artists (Tuesdays); visual arts, including painting, sculpture, photography, design and architecture (Wednesdays); music, including R&B, rock, blues, jazz, world music and standards (Thursdays); and film, a new area for Ovation, featuring movies about art as well as those considered to be art themselves (Fridays).

Weekends generally will be the "best of" Ovation programming presented in themed formats. In addition, a 15-day primetime programming stunt being called "American Revolutionaries" is set to debut July 1.

"We are not going to dumb things down or dilute what is called art," Slava said. "We are going to deal with all this stuff in a very smart way."

The schedule will feature a mix of acquired and original programs, with plans to launch original series and specials before year's end. An original series dealing with art and travel is in the works.

Advertisers include insurer Geico, the New York Times and Carnegie Hall.

In conjunction with the relaunch comes a multiplatform initiative, which includes distribution of Ovation content online and through VOD. Programming will be unique to each platform and designed with an emphasis on local interests and events.

"We've got a linearly programd 24/7 channel, and then we can superserve the targeted interests within that using other platforms," executive vp Chad Gutstein said. "We are taking the Ovation TV voice and seamlessly translating it from linear to VOD to a Web experience."

With plans to launch Ovation's new Web site in multiple phases, OvationTV.com will offer content ranging from long and short video to editorial and information about local arts offerings.

"The last thing OvationTV.com is going to be is a promotional Web site for the TV channel," Gutstein said.

Profiles of artists will be featured on the site -- some of which will tie into artists shown on the TV channel -- and educational institutions will be able to build their own profiles featuring video and information about their programs and events.

"While there are 15 million households that can watch Ovation on television, there are 70 million broadband households," Gutstein said. "For most of the country, the primary experience can be OvationTV.com."

Gutstein said there are plans for online users to be able to purchase tickets to arts-related events from the site, while cable operators will have the opportunity to tie in online promotions.

Links to content within the site and outside of it will also be featured, and a video upload capability for users to share their own content also is planned.

"OvationTV.com is a destination site where the creative class can come and put more art in their life," Gutstein said, "to find what they're looking for and to point them in the right direction to go deeper into the arts."

Ovation also will attempt to reach viewers on a regional basis. Garfield cited content from such organizations as the Harlem School of the Arts and P.S. Arts as the kind of programming provided through cultural institutional partnerships that will be developed through local VOD.

"We're trying to create a connection so marketing partnerships will be created through institutions and those local operators and distributors," he said.

DirecTV's Hartman agrees that connecting with viewers on a local level is a good strategy.

"They're high on the cross-platform initiatives that they are going to be involved in and the localized presence they are going to have," he said. "It's a unique and different approach, and we're excited, (though) we haven't had specific talks about how to take advantage of that yet."

Gutstein and Garfield emphasized that the online and VOD platforms are intricate components of the rebranded Ovation TV and see the potential for programming to hit the mobile screen.

"We don't look at these platforms as add-ons or as purely marketing for our linear network. They're an integrated part of the brand we're trying to build," Gutstein said. "When you're programming to as broad a category as this is, using VOD and online and mobile -- that really brings to life the brand."
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