Ovation looking for a second act

Net aims to get more subscribers, better programming

Culture vultures remember with fondness the 1980s and early ’90s when primetime TV listings would teem with BBC costume dramas on A&E, and serious foreign films (subtitles and all) on Bravo.

Back then, tax-cutting lawmakers would bloviate about how the government should not spend a dime on public broadcasting because it was no longer unique: Cable TV was duplicating much of the PBS schedule.

Jump ahead to 2006, and PBS has emerged as the only outlet that regularly schedules such shows as opera and ballet on “Live From Lincoln Center” and docs about artists on “American Masters.”

But now there’s another outlet vying for attention.

Ovation is maneuvering behind the scenes to tap into about $55 million in venture-capital money to heighten its visibility.

Operating almost in secret, Ovation, a privately owned setup, needs the dollars because in its 10 years of existence it has managed to scrape up only about 5 million subscribers (A&E reaches 89 million).

And Ovation’s lineup delivers a rather stale menu of previously aired music performances (everybody from Lena Horne and Muddy Waters to Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli) and documentaries, such as the 6-year-old multipart “Beyond the Fatal Shore,” from Robert Hughes’ bestselling history of Australia.

The network’s entire programming budget for 2005, according to Kagan Research, was a measly $2.4 million, which, says Bill Baker, general manager of WNET, the public-TV station in New York, is less than the cost of one full-scale opera presentation on “Live From Lincoln Center.”

Ovation pocketed only $200,000 in ad revenues for the entire year of 2005, mostly on 800-number blurbs, but Kagan says its overall expenses were so low that the network eked out a 2005 cash flow of about $100,000.

The executive who’s putting together the investment capital to get Ovation more subscribers and better programming asked for anonymity because premature publicity about his organizing of the deal could kill it.

“I’m convinced that there’s room enough in ad-supported cable for one arts network,” says the exec. But the arts network he has in mind stretches beyond just cablecasting an opera or a ballet, or training a camera on a painting while the soundtrack fills with classical music.

To pull in a younger audience than the 50-plus viewers who typically check out arts programming, the exec wants a revamped Ovation to “combine arts with lifestyle. We’d see demonstrations of how to paint on canvas, or watch a professional photographer explain how he uses light as he wields his camera.”

For people planning to travel abroad, he says, Ovation would feature practical-advice docs on the cultural highlights of a given city, from museums to theaters, focusing on history and architecture.

He adds that he’d rather present a doc about the behind-the-scenes coming together of a production of Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” than show the play itself.

“If we broadcast an opera,” the exec says, “I’d include an expert armed with a Telestrator to explain what’s going on.”

But interrupting the production of an opera or a play for a connoisseur to point out the nuances of a scene would more than likely anger educated viewers who hate being talked down to, says Jacoba Atlas, senior VP of programming for PBS. “Producers should think twice about violating the sanctity of a performance,” she says.

Atlas is rooting for Ovation to succeed because the more people get exposed to the arts the better it will be for PBS.

“But every time a performance runs, there are so many payments that have to be made to the unions for musicians, dancers, actors, singers,” Atlas says. “Arts may be one of the most expensive genres in television — you can never have enough of a war chest to finance the production of arts and performances.”

Which is why Margaret Drain, VP of national programming at Boston pubcaster WGBH, says even if Ovation gets the money it needs to engineer a relaunch, “a year or so down the line the investors will say, ‘Oops. We’re not getting enough viewers. We need more eyeballs.’ ”

Similar to A&E and Bravo when they deep-sixed arts programming in the ’90s, Drain predicts, Ovation will start programming to “the lowest common denominator.”