News

An Indie Network With 'the Legs'

11/14/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Can an independent programming service still get big enough, fast enough, to survive?

That's an important question for publications like ours and it can't be answered simply. A fair number of indie networks grow and then sell out — Oxygen and Sundance Channel are two recent examples.

Others kick around a while, don't quite make it and then fold — like Lime TV and Black Family Channel (which sold channel slots to Gospel Music Channel).

Still others chug along and, if they're well-financed and have a little good luck, can survive for the long term.

Ovation TV puts itself in the last category.

Distribution has grown from about 5 million subscribers when new owners took over in August 2006 to a projected 30 million at year's end.

“That incredibly important commodity that these guys hold, which is called bandwidth — they've given it up to us,” Ovation CEO Charles Segars said last week of his affiliates. “They've said, this is a service that we want.”

Connections and money help. The new owners include Hubbard Media, which had an in with DirecTV that helped deliver 8 million subscribers.

Dish Network carriage came when Ovation bought Universal Music Group's IMF channel in January.

Time Warner Cable stepped up, with key launches in Dallas in February and Los Angeles. TWC retains an equity stake in Ovation from the previous regime, network chief operating officer Ron Garfield said.

More important, he and Segars said, TWC buys into Ovation's approach, which includes allying with dozens of local cultural institutions such as museums and opera companies.

“In this business, it's all about momentum,” ex-Hallmark Channel distribution chief Garfield added. Some news: Comcast signed up in August and is expected to launch Ovation on digital basic this week in Chicago (1 million subscribers). A Charter Communications deal should lead to launches later this year, he said.

Programming chief Kris Slava, ex of A&E and Bravo, has put together a genre-based primetime schedule — performances on Monday, people profiles on Tuesday, visual arts Wednesday, music Thursday and films on Friday.

Ovation isn't Nielsen-rated: Garfield said that will come when distribution is about 40 million. But surveys indicate an average viewer age “well south of 50,” Slava said.

Ovation pitches an educated viewer who “tends to be a premium consumer.” Advertisers include Morgan Stanley, BlackBerry, Infiniti, Nokia, Sharpie and Met Life.

“Trust me — we know that we're heading into a very challenging year,” Segars said. But Ovation isn't spending cash on off-network programs or making movies. The CEO (whose résumé includes Fine Living Network and DreamWorks SKG) likens the approach to Food Network: cost-efficient programming in the category.

“People are seeing now that we have the legs, that we're real and we're not going anywhere,” Segars said.

For an indie network, that's cause for an ovation.

September