Every year, the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour takes place—a time when the country’s top TV journalists come together in Los Angeles to hear from directors, producers and casts of new and existing shows that await viewers every spring. During the 2019 cable programming portion, America’s Entertainment & Technology Leaders caught up with Ovation TV Executive Vice President of Programming and Production, Scott Woodward, to get a better understanding of how the network selects shows that strike a chord with audiences, and how Ovation differentiates itself when viewers have a limitless number of options.
Known for being an arts network, Ovation brings in over 300 new hours of artistic content a year, and as Woodward said it, they work year-round to “find the crème de la crème of art content.” At TCA, a roomful of media critics had the chance to hear from the casts of the network’s spring lineup, including Frankie Drake Mysteries, Murdoch Mysteries, Riviera, and The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook.
Check out our Q&A with Woodward below.
How do you come up with the concepts for these shows? What is most important to you when you are choosing these projects?
We are looking for art and culture, or something that has an attraction to art and culture. We can look back several years, and one of the first dramas we had was the Murdoch Mysteries. It was called The Artful Detective back then. We’ve now gone back to the original title, Murdoch. We’re going back to that because it is a show all about discovery.
Versailles [Ovation’s hit series which ended in 2018], was a show that frequently trended on social media, keeping an international conversation going. (Versailles centered King Louis XIV of France as he commissions the Palace of Versailles to become the principle royal residence and to better keep an eye on potentially rebellious behavior by the royal court.) When the first season launched in America, a captivated audience was anxiously awaiting, having heard the acclaim Versailles had received overseas. That’s why Ovation looked at Riviera as a replacement for Versailles on Saturday nights. It’s a drama that has a foundation in the world of art and poetry. There’s an amazing female lead [Julia Stiles]. Ovation cares about that. Woodward extends that to Frankie Drake. We’ve got two powerful women at a transitional time in history when they are making themselves known. They’re not just sitting back. And if you look at The Pacific—it’s about an artist, Sam Neill. He has great passion for the cultures of the Pacific. He made this personal journey all across the Pacific following the path of Captain Cook, but discovers the cultures, the people and the art along the way.
Why is it important to the network to have strong female characters and diversity in its casts and storylines?
You look at Frankie Drake. One a person of color. One not. It’s the roaring ’20s. That begins to get you a bit of a diverse cast. You see different points of view in the actors. And the producers of the content have different points of view. For example, Sam Neill talked about his trip to the Pacific [during his TCA panel]. He talked about the colonization of the Pacific. How there’s a change, and the colonial nature of New Zealand is blending with the Māori people. It’s becoming a seamless world for him there. That’s the world Woodward wants to live in. He doesn’t want to live in a world that’s just seeing his reflection. He also wants to hear other people’s points of view. That’s what Ovation is looking for in documentaries and shows. They want diversity in terms of the stories. There’s got to be a blend of it all.
How else does Ovation stand apart as a network in today’s competitive TV marketplace?
Ovations looks at the arts and how viewers can interact and intersect with the arts on screen, but also in public. One of the things they’re doing for Arts Advocacy Day is taking a day to go commercial-free. It’s all arts content all day, art across the heartland. It’s not just the art Ovation focuses on in New York, Los Angeles, and major cities. They’re also looking at what’s happening in North Dakota. Virginia. There are artists all over the United States. Ovation wants to do something that profiles the people and organizations that are involved in that and really celebrate them. It also extends to off camera with Ovation making donations to arts organizations, spending a lot of time with young artists in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and creating Public Service Announcements.
What changes in TV and technology have you seen over the course of your career, and what do these changes mean for viewers today?
There used to be radio. Then TV came along. Radio was going to end, but it didn’t end. Now we have podcasts in addition to radio. Then the cable networks came out. That was going to end, but it didn’t end, in fact it lifted everything up. And you look at cable now and you see some of the greatest dramatic works that you have access to, even more so than film. And now I can see it on my phone. My daughter might be watching it on her tablet in her room. I think it’s a time of Renaissance for creative production.
I interned in college for the BBC, and because they were not commercially supported, you could have an hour show, with a 30-minute documentary in it, then another 15-minute short-form piece, then a five-minute piece, and a 10-minute piece, and that would fill up the hour. You’re seeing more of that now, just in different environments. It can exist in many ways. It might seem like a scary time for TV, but TV is not going away. It’s actually a wonderful time for content.