In a nation of 300 million, 50 states and uncountable cities and towns, in a land of tens of thousands of nonprofits and with thousands of those nonprofits being arts nonprofits, in a country where arts and culture delivers $153.2 billion in economic activity every year, supporting 4.13 million full-time jobs, it is reasonable to imagine an arts channel existing and thriving on TV. Well, one does exist. It’s called Ovation.
But Ovation, since its inception in 1997, has had some ups and downs — more of the latter, lately, than the former. The network likes to tout the fact that it showcases the great art and artists of this and every age, and that its reach is on the order of 47 million households, but respectfully, Ovation has yet to burn and sear itself on the minds and lips of the nation in the way that would be wished for, hoped for and expected by those of us working in the arts. Or who patronize the arts. Or care for the arts. Or think about the arts — or think all Americans should work in, patronize, care for and think about the arts. This is a problem. Not one that has gone unnoticed by the network, to be sure, but last year it metastasized into a big enough problem that, in the wake of several volleys of charges, counter-charges and old-fashioned bluster, Time Warner Cable (TWC) summarily dropped Ovation from its broadcast lineup, taking with it one of Ovation’s key demos: the New York tristate area.
At which point Ovation, the little network that could, said “Enough!”
Up went the calls for a petition to Time Warner Cable, and tens of thousands of signers added their John Hancocks in a matter of weeks. Up went the calls from Ovation’s Los Angeles headquarters to motivate the arts community to let TWC know, in a gentle way, where it could stick its stinky lineup. (To be clear, Ovation never asked supporters to lambaste TWC, but arts advocates are known to be passionate, and if passion begets action, then let passion be passionate.) Up went PR, up went social media buzz, up went more buzz on social media and then more buzz on social media, and up went (whispered) calls to politicos and media critics and journalist-influencers, and up went a call to The Clyde Fitch Report, offering one of its top Ovation executives for a Q&A. That is: We Q, they A.
And there really are many reasons why TWC called this one wrong. Only the dumb, dotty and doltish could buy TWC’s argument that it costs too much to carry Ovation, especially when there are 60-plus sports networks swinging for the rafters on everybody’s remote controls and enough adult pay-per-view channels on TWC to satisfy Eliot Spitzer. Ovation has reminded TWC privately, publicly, and in its quicksilver, hydra-headed lobbying efforts that cable companies are beneficiaries of a public franchise — that it isn’t just what programming fattens their wallets that matters, but what meets the needs and lies in the interests of all the people.
At the same time, quietly and in ways that aren’t so quiet, Ovation has clearly acknowledged that it knows what it must do. To put this in context, the CFR conducted a wholly unscientific poll of 10 New York City-based readers, all of whom make their living in the arts, regarding their impressions of Ovation. All 10 expressed concerns and criticisms. Two claimed they never watched Ovation in all the years it was broadcast locally via TWC. Four complained that Ovation’s docket was too limited — too many of the same films running over and over in a “loop of dullness.” Several were concerned that Ovation’s programming reinforced stereotypes about the arts as uppity, elitist, white, Western, unrelated and disconnected to Americans’ everyday lives. None knew that Ovation has donated some $15 million in corporate philanthropy to cultural charities. One was furious at TWC for dropping Ovation but did seem to know that the channel’s ratings had, shall we say, room for growth. Many knew of Ovation’s petition. A few had signed it. Most thought that the medium of TV, the vast wasteland of Newton Minnow, didn’t deserve to have an arts network.
Ovation’s marketing materials, however, make the case that TV need not be such a wasteland. In 2012, it did air some 420 hours of music documentaries and performances; if you don’t believe them, dive into old TV Guides and count’em up yourself. Also in 2012 was 46 hours of original programming, which may not sound like a lot and, in fact, isn’t much when you’re a Fox or a CBS or an HBO, but it was a new high for Ovation, which is going public with plans for many more new shows, including a massive jump to 223 hours of original programming next year. For 16 years the people behind Ovation — that is, its investors, its thinkers, its dreamers — have been valiantly pushing a rock up an unworthy hill. TWC made them slip; maybe it was the kick in the groin that Ovation needed to look inside themselves, to ask themselves what it could really mean to be America’s arts network. That last idea bears one more read: America’s arts network. Just imagine.
We also think Ovation may still be too timid, too — well — TV-influenced in its vision. We think they need more than a mere and sleepy sales office in New York — to not have an aggressive, well-connected and dynamic corporate presence in one of the undisputed centers of arts and culture in the US makes zero sense. We think Ovation must immerse into the other major centers of US arts and culture as well — find the stories and story ideas in large cities and small towns and unlikely outposts that justify the idea of America’s arts network.
We think Ovation should worry less about how to create programs that seem like arts-y versions of what the bigger networks are offering and worry more about how to use, maybe subversively, the medium of TV to showcase the arts to its best advantage. We think it needs programs to educate, yes, but to infuriate and dominate. We think it needs programs that explore new and boundary-breaking ways to take everyone backstage, to the barre, to the pit. We think Ovation ought to stop limiting the “arts” to what so many Americans think of when they think of the arts (if they think of the arts) and remember that in our incredible creative economy, there is the elderly grandma selling macramé on Etsy, there is the hawkish street fashion inspiring what’s hot and haute, there is manga madness, there are film clubs and cinema geeks, there is the community theatre star-accountant set to play Willy Loman. We think Ovation must find and tell radically new stories in radically new ways and use radical new technologies to do it. We think they must make the arts cool — a tall order in a nation suffering from arts-as-a-frill disease. But if Ovation is — or should be — America’s arts network, is that their job? Of course it is. And we think they’re primed for achievement.
And that is why it was illuminating to chat with Ovation COO Chat Gutstein. Here are some snippets from his bio:
As Chief Operating Officer of Ovation, Chad E. Gutstein’s primary responsibility is managing the overall P&L of Ovation’s business. In addition, he oversees Ovation’s distribution strategy, arts industry relations, business and corporate development, government and philanthropic relations, legal, finance, operations, administration and human resources activities. Mr. Gutstein is also a partner in the Arcadia Investment Partners/Ovation investment vehicles and was a key architect of the acquisition and financing of Ovation in 2006.
…Prior to joining Ovation, Mr. Gutstein was President of Entertainment Media Advisors, a consultancy firm whose mission is to provide strategy, business development and capital advisory services to companies operating in the media and entertainment industries.
Prior to founding EMA, he was Senior Vice President of BuyTV, a start-up home shopping TV network. In partnership with Buy.com, BuyTV’s goal was to combine the convenience of distance shopping with the storytelling power of lifestyle television to build a powerful new sales channel for mass-market branded retailers. He developed the business plan, programming, distribution, and retailer strategy for the network.
From 1999 until 2003, Mr. Gutstein was Principal at WaterView Advisors, a $250mm private equity fund that made investments in the media, entertainment and communications industries. He was instrumental in the development, funding and launch of The Tennis Channel, and served as Interim CFO for both The Tennis Channel and Creative Planet…
We recently watched a YouTube clip of Ovation CEO Charles Segars’ testimony to Congress in support of the National Endowment for the Arts. It has 511 views. As the CEO of Ovation, Segars has a bully pulpit from which he can audaciously translate arts and culture into content for TV, and to awaken the nation to the indispensability of arts and cutlure to our society and economy. Reflecting on Ovation’s campaign to pressure TWC, do you believe all of the network’s top leadership makes full use of its bully pulpit? And if TWC does restore Ovation to its lineup, how will you, for example, use your bully pulpit differently to advance the cause of the arts?
Gutstein: With or without the situation with TWC, Ovation has always been a cause-based media company. Over the past several years, Ovation has provided over $15 million in support to arts causes and cultural institutions around the country. We have been a strong advocate for increased arts funding. We have used our linear service to promote the activities of over 150 cultural institutions and arts organizations. Ovation uses our national TV platform to connect our viewers to all forms of art and artistic expression, but we choose not to use our linear network to wage a war with the one major cable provider that doesn’t support us. Instead, we created BringBackOvation.com to allow our public supporters to have a voice. To date, nearly 83,000 people have signed the petition to bring back Ovation to TWC.
When TWC adds Ovation back to their lineup, Ovation will continue to support the arts, artists, arts institutions and arts education programs as it always has. Once again, TWC and its customers will be beneficiaries of our ongoing mission to connect viewers to all forms of art and artistic expression — on the air, online and on the ground. What is different now is that we can more strongly relate to the many arts and cultural programs and organizations that are threatened with budget cuts or elimination. We will continue to fight for those, but now understand how to reach across platforms more broadly to energize potential supporters for these programs and organizations.
Ovation has repeatedly and vigorously refuted TWC’s claims that it’s too costly to carry Ovation and that its ratings lag. If those claims are spurious, is it your view that TWC’s decision-makers are ignorant of, perhaps contemptuous of, the arts? Do you think they perceive arts as inherently elitist?
Gutstein: I make no assumptions about the personal opinions and preferences of the decision makers at TWC, but I do think they made a business decision to drop our channel based on factors other than those they chose to reference publicly. The fact is, Ovation’s audience grew by 63% in 2012, making Ovation the third fastest-growing TV network.
TWC appears to take a rather narrow view of the arts. We believe art is everywhere and touches all aspects of our society. That’s why our new tagline is “Art Everywhere” and why our programming reflects a broad diversity of great arts content, from our annual Battle of the Nutcrackers family programming event to our Red Carpet Cinema nights to Smash and our original series, such as Song by Song, Culture Pop and The Art Of…
What we do know is that TWC took Ovation off the air because they can. Ovation is an independently owned network and lacks the leverage of a big media company that could bundle Ovation with other, more widely established networks. TWC’s actions have denied their customers a truly independent voice in media and the only arts network in America.
TWC’s business decision is sending a message to their customers that they don’t value the arts in the communities they serve. We think cable companies, which historically were locally granted monopolies, have a civic responsibility to provide socially positive programming services like Ovation’s. We think access to the arts is critical to the social, civic and economic well-being of our communities and many of our other distribution partners share this conviction.
In statements about, and press accounts of, Ovation’s dispute with TWC, we note that Ovation touts its support of local arts — from lobbying and PSAs to direct and in-kind support. Given that the recession painfully laid bare the fact that the nonprofit business model is vulnerable to the vagaries of the market and politics, is it not time for the nonprofit arts world to rely less on contributed income and to think more entrepreneurially? What role, if any, can Ovation play in that conversation?
Gutstein: Ovation is very aware of the fiscal constraints and shrinking budgets of arts institutions and arts educations programs across the country. That is why we have supported local arts programs by providing funding, lobbying, donations, PSAs and more to the tune of more than $15 million over the past six years. We work with organizations like Americans for the Arts and the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. Our role is to be a bridge between the nonprofit arts community and for-profit organizations to develop and execute partnerships that connect the arts community to other cause-based marketers seeking to benefit from the creativity and wonder that the arts produces.
Ovation also touts its delivery of arts programming to lower-income subscribers and minority communities that lack access to culture. We would argue that many lower-income and minority families and individuals don’t lack access to culture so much as move through life unaware of culture — or worse, believe that the arts don’t speak to who, what and where they are. This is a very hot topic in audience-development circles as the demographic continues to age. What can Ovation do to really put the arts on the national cultural diet, regardless of socioeconomic status?
Gutstein: How do you define art and culture? Are the arts simply the classical arts — painting, sculpture, classical music and opera? Or just Eurocentric forms of culture? At Ovation, we believe that art is everywhere and that various cultures have expressions of art forms that are woven into the fabric of their communities. Ovation celebrates the classics — we have classical arts programming on-air weekday mornings at 7am EST — but we also recognize that art is film, popular music, world music, street performance, body art, theater, culinary art, fashion, design, and much, much more. Art is a great equalizer and the most democratized of activities. With Ovation’s perspective on art, people of any socioeconomic background can, and do, engage.
In order to put arts on the national cultural diet, it has to be served up in a manner that is in sync with how society learns about and appreciates culture today. Ovation is available via the most ubiquitous medium there is: television. An always-on, linear, shared TV experience offers an amazing opportunity for audiences to sample and discover new passions and connections to art. We have the potential to expose a multitude of individuals to a variety of art forms — some of which they wouldn’t be exposed to in any other way either due to cost or lack of local options. Ovation programs like Culture Pop and The Art of… inform viewers in a way that is entertaining and not academic or elitist.
Ovation has made efforts to counter some negative perceptions of the brand: that it shows too many films, that it repeats too much programming, that it’s too ad-laden. We understand you can trot out charts and statistics to counter this criticism, but the impression remains nevertheless. What errors has Ovation made in the past with its programming and how can you guarantee that audiences will form new perceptions of it in the future? Why should audiences who have turned off Ovation tune back in?
Gutstein: Every network struggles with finding the balance between pleasing its advertisers, serving its audience and keeping programming costs manageable. Like many others, we have relied on acquisitions of films and programs that are proven ratings winners, although ones which are squarely within our brand wheelhouse. That said, it has always been our strategy to ramp up our original programming and we have done so every year. This year has been the biggest increase to date — over 200 hours of original programming in 2013. This is a pivotal time for Ovation as we debut numerous new original series — including The Art Of…, Culture Pop and new seasons of Song by Song — as well as off-network gems like Smash and US premieres like the hit UK series A Young Doctor’s Notebook with Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe. There is an influx of really exciting and unique content coming to Ovation that we think fans and arts lovers will delight in and will also attract new fans to the network.
When will Ovation meaningfully utilize live streaming as a delivery method for new content?
Gutstein: Ovation is investing heavily in an industry project known as TV Everywhere, which will enable Ovation subscribers to access our content on any platform, any device, wherever and whenever they choose. Live streaming is something we have looked into many times and we have done some experimentation, like when we live-streamed the red carpet arrivals to the Drama Desk Awards. Live streaming involves numerous considerations — including content rights issues, our distribution agreements, mass audience interest and cost. We also believe some programming lends itself better to live streaming than others. Live events and performance are two such examples. In the right scenario and with the right partners in place, we would consider live streaming.
A reality show about an orchestra — rehearsing, touring, union rules and performances.
A reality show about auditions for a ballet troupe — live-streamed.
A reality show about the stagehands of a Broadway show — one running right now.
A reality show to develop a new graphic novel — using a crowd-sourced narrative.
Of these four, which idea would stretch and improve Ovation’s brand the most? Why wouldn’t Ovation pursue any of them?
Gutstein: All of them! In fact, we already had a good deal of success last year with an original series we produced called A Chance to Dance, which was about the creation of a new dance company. All of these ideas illustrate the breadth of content that we can and will include on Ovation as we fulfill our brand’s mission of surfacing art everywhere.