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A Blow to Arts Television: Such As It Is

 Time Warner Cable has delivered a blow to Ovation, the independent arts television channel. 

OvationTVThat’s sad, even though Ovation has never lived up to the expections many had for it in the early ’90s, when J. Carter Brown, the esteemed former director of the National Gallery of Art, agreed to become chairman of the fledgling network. As the New York Times told the story:

“I will be Ovation’s godfather,” said Mr. Brown. “My role will be one of making connections and looking at the quality of the programming.” Dr. Harold E. Morse, founder of the Learning Channel, will be in charge of the day-to-day operations as Ovation’s president and chief executive. The network is based in Alexandria, Va.

The Ovation network will limit itself to art, dance, music, literature and theater. Unlike existing arts networks like Bravo and Arts and Entertainment, it will not show movies.

The debut was set for 1994, but that did not happen until 1996, by which time I had written an article headline, TV Has All But Tuned Out the Visual Arts, and Ovation was not carried by the cable companies in New York City. Somewhere along the way, the channel changed hands, and in 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that

“…for the last four years a group of investors has been working to establish an oasis for Ovation, an independent channel devoted to art and contemporary culture….Available in only 5 million homes in 2007, the channel now can be seen in about 42 million homes, or nearly half of all cable and satellite households in the country.”

Now, the LA Times is reporting that “Time Warner Cable plans to drop the small Santa Monica-based channel Ovation from its programming lineup at year’s end.” The company issued a statement saying, in part:

Ovation is among the poorest performing networks, and is viewed by less than 1% of our customers on any given day.

That is true even though Ovation has long since expanded the definition of arts to include art-house films, photography, architecture and other “popular” arts. In 2010, the LAT piece quoted experts suggesting that the “long-tail theory” said a small niche channel could do well because a small base of avid fans would keep it going. I always thought the long-tail theory was overblown, and it clearly didn’t work here.

Still, Ovation does continue on other distribution outlets. Time-Warner’s move knocks it out of 7 million homes in one swoop, but about 44 million homes can still watch under service agreements with DirecTV and Comcast Corp, for example.

Ovation has started an online petition to Time-Warner Cable.


  1. Laurence Glavin says:

    Two years ago I expanded my cable options just to get Current TV in time for the new Keith Olbermann Show. Ooops. But now I use it for the Stephanie Miller show in the morning. Anyway, Ovation was included in my new lineup, so one day I perused its offerings and found a show featuring some chamber music. CHAMBER MUSIC! So I started listening to the piece (sorry, I forget what it was) but just like a Greg Sandow wet dream, Ovation went to a commercial break BETWEEN EACH MOVEMENT! Duh. I would be the ideal target of such a network, except for events like this, and are the Rolling Stones art?

    • I watch Ovation all the time! And yes, Laurence, the Rolling Stones are art (or at this point, antiques – ha!) As artists or arts journalists, I think we should support their petition. Slowly but surely, the only things we’ll be able to watch on TV are sports, shopping, news and reality shows about rednecks. We have to at least have the OPTION of other programming even if we don’t watch it all the time.

      • Ovation has been replaying one-hour chamber music concerts from the Verbier Festival in Switzerland with extremely distinguished musicians (Martha Argerich, Lars Vogt, et al.)–at 7 AM.

        But most of its schedule is devoted to old movies (right now Blade Runner and Cotton Club) and pop culture figures like Beyonce, Elton John, and Freddie Mercury. We certainly need a cultural channel, but Ovation was not filling the bill.

        • It might not be fitting YOUR bill but I think film, especially classic Academy Award nominated films like Blade Runner, are art and are perfectly fitting for an arts and culture channel. And as you’ve already pointed out, music whether chamber music or rock n roll is art as well.

          • Well, I agree that Blade Runner is art, but Blade Runner turns up on other old-movie channels as well, and there is no shortage of rock ‘n roll on TV. A channel devoted to culture might have live concerts from around the world, ballet and modern dance. It could cover contemporary dance and music. It might have arts coverage like PBS’s “New York Arts,” which reviews events throughout NYC, along with excerpts and interviews with artists, actors, choreographers. It could have theater roundtables like Donna Karger’s on NY1. It could have panel discussions on arts topics. It could have informed analysis of art and performance. It could have the kind of musical analysis that Anthony Tommasini has put up on the NY Times website. It might even have commentary from someone as knowledgeable as Judith Dobrzynski.

            There’s any number of things an arts channel could have: it’s just that Ovation doesn’t have any of them (and what it does have is available elsewhere). Except, as noted, the occasional broadcast from the Verbier Festival at an hour when nearly everyone who might be interested in watching has something else to do.

  2. I love Ovation TV, love watching the movies about famous artists lives.. please more!!!
    With out Ovation TV is Like no Culture in our world, what happens, with no culture for our children,,??
    They grow up without compasion for the human race… thats what culture does for us..

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