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October 02, 2017

Standing O

After a royal drama raises its stature in the industry, Ovation TV widens its focus.

Curt Wagner
  • George Blagden as Louis XIV in Versailles

    Anouchka Williencourt

King Louis XIV made France a major player in 17th-century Europe, in part by ordering the opulent expansion of the Palace of Versailles.

Now the Sun King is showering prestige on Ovation TV in the form of Versailles, the international hit about his pet project.

Ovation TV, which calls itself America’s only arts network, launched the sexy period drama last year; the 10-episode second season debuts September 30. Scott Woodward, executive vice-president of programming and production, says the effect of the multi-national coproduction on the network has been transformative (a Canal+ Creation Originale, the series is co-produced by Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo).

“It changed the world for us on a number of levels,” he says, including bringing increased press coverage. “That’s important, because we’re a small network. Resources are limited a bit, so we have to find ways to make people aware of the brand."

The Versailles premiere was the most watched telecast for Ovation, which reaches roughly 54 million homes. A total combined audience of 557,000 viewers tuned in during multiple airings of the October 2016 series premiere — triple the network’s average primetime audience among adults 25 to 54.

Besides ratings, there was social-media buzz, says Liz Janneman, executive vice-president of network strategy. “It got us the attention, got us into the conversation with a lot more advertisers, a lot more distributors, a lot more programmers.”

The Versailles effect is the latest evolution of Ovation. When the network launched in 1996, it broadcast ballet and opera to about 5 million homes. In 2007, under new owners that include the Weinstein Company and Hubbard Media Group, it relaunched with a mission to celebrate, support and bring all forms of art to the public.

Staying true to that goal has helped Ovation grow while other small networks disappeared, Janneman says.

“A lot of networks lose their vision,” she says. “It’s about whether you have a value proposition  that is beneficial to the consumer, the distributor, the advertiser. If the answer is yes, then you have a  point of differentiation and you’ve kept true to your brand. You hold your head high and you continue to do your job.”

And Versailles is completely on brand for Ovation, Woodward says. “It describes Ovation. It is about architecture. It is about period drama. It’s about costumes. That’s all art.”

Ovation first gained national attention in 2013 for dramas when it aired the exclusive U.S. premieres of two international series, the Canadian period  mystery The Artful Detective (also called Murdoch Mysteries) and A Young Doctor’s Notebook, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm.

Ovation’s current programming includes art-focused reality and documentary series as well as classic movies and syndicated reruns. The network offers themed blocks of programming throughout the week, including “Ruthless Royals,” “Artists and Icons,” and a daytime mystery block featuring The Artful Detective and the Aussie period drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

This fall the network will launch a Monday-night “Secrets and Crimes” block to support the October 2 premiere of the drama The Halcyon, about the guests and staff at a posh London hotel during World War II.

Supporting its high-profile acquisitions with complementary programming — often created by its production arm, Full Slate Studios — is key to Ovation’s strategy, the executives say.

The network surrounded the first season of Versailles with acquired documentary series on related topics and created behind-the-scenes specials about the making of the series. For season two, the network will air original docs about the art of Versailles and a look at its top attractions.

Aude Albano, an executive producer of Versailles, is impressed by Ovation’s embrace of the series. “It was incredibly exciting to see how they support this show so wholeheartedly,” she said during a June visit to Studios de Bry-Sur-Marne, just east of Paris, where the show is filmed. “It’s great to have the show exist in a respectful and welcoming place like that.”

The network treated Versailles as a passion project, the network execs observe — and the effort has paid off. When Sony Pictures Television was looking for a U.S. home for both The Halcyon and the Canadian WWII drama X Company, which comes to the network in 2018, Ovation was top of mind.

“We’re getting the first calls now, because they feel we handled Versailles really well,” Woodward says. “We were one of the first networks that the Sony team came to because… they want [their show] to land in a place where it’s going to be successful.” 


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017

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