Robert Weiss on the future for Ovation

Robert Weiss was appointed chief creative officer of Ovation TV late last year and the former Eqal, FX, VH1 and Fuse executive has swiftly restructured the arts and culture network. Kris Slava, Marc Johnson and almost 30 staffers have left in total and several new faces have been brought in during Weiss’ short tenure. TBI speaks to the Ovation boss ahead of the channel’s upcoming Upfront about his plans for the channel.


Weiss will make arts and culture channel more inclusive

Staff overhaul three-quarters complete

Departures include Kris Slava, Marc Johnson

New arrivals include Douglas Strasnick, Evan Minskoff

Ovation’s Upfront at the Lincoln Center in New York next week will be the first time the wider industry will get a flavour of the direction in which the arts and culture channel is headed after a tumultuous period.

Robert Weiss joined in a new role as chief creative officer last December and this has yielded some dramatic changes at the channel. A wholesales restructure has seen the company organised around three divisions, marketing, programming and production arm Ovation Studios.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of comings and goings, with the process accelerated by Time Warner Cable’s decision to drop the channel. After a period of rapid growth, the channel was in just five million homes in 2007, that shaved off several million customers leaving it in about 45 million US TV homes.

The staff changes were reported on the Deadline Hollywood site but individuals not identified. TBI understands that 28 staff were let go in all and that high-profile departures include Kris Slava, senior VP or programming and production. Slava was behind many of the international acquisitions and coproductions at Ovation, including Ian Rankin adaptation Doors Open (pictured, below) with Stephen Fry.

Doors Open

Marc Johnson was another departure, having joined from in May of last year. Marketing boss Gaynor Strachan-Chun, distribution exec Dan Casciato and VP of research Lyn Gutstadt were also among the leavers.

“When I was hired the challenge was to make Ovation a super arts net,” Weiss says. “When Time Warner made their business decision it meant that I didn’t have six months to implement my plan, I had to go pedal to the metal; [CEO] Charles [Segars] and I decided that we had to do it now.”

New faces, meanwhile, include Evan Minskoff, who has come on as head of marketing and brand strategy and Douglas Strasnick, a former Eqal executive, as senior VP and head of programming.

Several more hires will follow and the headcount will be two or three shy of where it was pre-restructure, Weiss says. “We’ve been adding almost one person a week as I have been putting my team together, we have new heads of programming, marketing, research, social media and originals. The changing of personnel is about realigning Ovation for the next few years. We’re still in building mode and about three-quarters of the way through that process (and) there will be about half a dozen more additions.”

With his background at digital media firm Eqal, better exploiting Ovation beyond TV is one of Weiss’ goals. “Cable properties need to think of themselves as media companies, just being a ‘cable network’ is very nineties,” he says. “Now there is YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and VOD with linear TV as the mothership platform for the brand. There’s a real opportunity to build and grow a community. Our old dot com was incredibly under-leveraged and we are overhauling that as we speak.”

Having helped reposition FX, Fuse and VH1, Weiss adds that the challenge at Ovation is unique. “It wasn’t an emergency situation at Ovation, but there was just so much more we should be doing in the arts space,”he says.

There will be a new tag line for the channel and slate of new original programming unveiled at next week’s Upfront.

“We don’t want Ovation to be your parents’ network – arts should be celebrated by everyone and the brand will become a lot more inclusive,” Weiss says. “Arts should also include fashion, body painting, graffiti, and food – art is everywhere.”

CEO Charles Segars is backing Weiss’ plans for evolving Ovation with more cash for programming and the new CCO says the Upfront will reveal the net’s ambitious content plans. “You will see a record number of originals and a seismic increase in the number of hours and series we commit to,” Weiss says.

The originals will be in the factual space and there will be acquired and coproduced drama. Weiss has been making regular trips to the UK and says the relationship with UK producers and distributors is in Ovation’s DNA and the pan-Atlantic connection will grow to include relationships with UK-based arts organisations.

While PBS and Sundance cover some of the same ground, Weiss says Ovation’s sole focus on arts and culture makes it unique.

“There are usually two or three brands in a particular space,” he says. “Others have some arts and culture shows, but Ovation is the only cable network with this type of full-blown programming offering. We do not want to be Bravo or A&E and you’ll never see us doing shows like you see there. That doesn’t mean we won’t do funs shows, but there is a certain filter. There is something in-between the space between Honey Boo Boo and ballet.”

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