Tuned In: Ovation aims to fill the cable arts niche; ‘Bunheads’ season finale

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — AE and Bravo long ago abandoned their initial missions to provide arts programming to cable subscribers. Their successor: Ovation.

The network, which has been around since the mid-1990s but relaunched with a broader reach in 2007, bills itself as “the only multi-platform network celebrating art, artists and all forms of artistic storytelling.”

For fine arts purists, Ovation may be a glass-half-empty proposition — the network does air reruns of pop culture touchstones “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Queer as Folk” — but it’s also one of the few places where a cable TV viewer might watch a performance by German-Israeli pianist Menahem Pressler at the 2008 Verbier Festival.

In January, Ovation senior vice president of programming Kris Slava said his network believes in the value of being a niche.

“We can super-serve an audience that isn’t being served by cookie-cutter networks that are all being pulled in the same direction,” he said. “We think there is a real long-term opportunity for us … to do more original series that have a distinctive arts focus that at the same time we think will appeal to a lot of people.”

So, to be sure, Ovation is going to be a mix of programming, which includes a new dance show, the seven-episode “A Chance to Dance” (10 tonight) from Nigel Lythgoe of “So You Think You Can Dance” and his son, Simon.

“A Chance to Dance” follows British contemporary dancers/choreographers Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt as they attempt to create a new dance company in the U.S. in just 28 days.

For viewers skeptical of Ovation now that it’s producing a show with a guy known for a Fox reality competition series, Mr. Slava said Ovation will continue to air fine arts programming, including a “Battle of the Nutcrackers” — seven different productions will air around Christmas; viewers vote for their favorite online — and an hour of classical music performance at 7 a.m. weekdays.

“We keep it very broad and define arts in a way that resonates with many, many different audiences,” Mr. Slava said. And how does Ovation define the arts? “Will it be ‘The Art of the Harley’? I don’t know about that, but short of that it really is any art form that takes us out of our everyday lives, lifts us up, reminds us we’re human and really inspires us. That’s a very broad definition of art, but I think that’s the way people see art today in the United States.”

Mr. Slava previously worked at now-defunct cable network Trio, which focused on brilliant but canceled TV programming, and he’s brought a similar spirit to Ovation, which aired several international TV dramas on Saturday nights this past spring under the tagline “The best you’ve never seen.”

“There is a genre we’re going to stick to, talking about art and artists, but at the same time we have the luxury of not being a broadcast network,” Mr. Slava said. “We can do it in such a way that it focuses more on the art itself, on the artistic process, that is a little less processed, a little less polished, a little grittier and have a niche that can be very effective and very successful for us.”

Locally, Ovation is carried on Comcast (Channel 155 or 946 HD in traditional systems; Channel 251 and 946HD on former Adelphia systems), Verizon’s FiOS TV (Channel 188), DirecTV (Channel 274) and Dish Network (Channel 291). Ovation is not carried by Armstrong.

Other than returning shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Teen Wolf,” there haven’t been a lot of new scripted TV series to get excited about this summer, but ABC Family’s “Bunheads” has proved to be a rare charmer.

“Bunheads” has its first-season finale at 9 p.m. Monday. The series follows Michelle, a young woman (Sutton Foster) who married impulsively, moved with her new husband to his small California hometown where he lived with his dance studio-owning mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop, “Gilmore Girls”). The husband died in a car accident at the end of the pilot, leaving Michelle as a fish out of water negotiating life with her resentful mother-in-law.

“Bunheads” is largely written by Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”), whose rat-a-tat-tat style of dialogue makes an hour of TV zip by. And yet “Bunheads” has been slow to advance its plot. Michelle is a former dancer, so it seemed obvious that she’d end up teaching at Fanny’s dance studio, but the show has barely crept in that direction, allowing time to build up the characters and develop an entire world for the town of Paradise, Calif., which, with its oddball characters (this week it was a barista with an artistic flair), gives Stars Hollow, Conn., from “Gilmore Girls” a run for its money.

When it began, “Bunheads” was two shows in one: A portion of each episode followed Michelle and Fanny; another portion followed some of the young dancers at Fanny’s studio. The show felt like it needed to mix those two worlds, and it has done that in ensuing episodes. The young dancers — aside from sweet Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) and mean Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) — remain underdeveloped, but “Bunheads” has at least taken steps in the right direction to make them more than ciphers.

Now the question is whether “Bunheads” will be renewed. On Aug. 6 the show drew just 1.17 million viewers and had a pretty measly 0.5 rating in the adults 18-49 demo. Both numbers were an improvement from a week earlier, but there’s reason for concern that “Bunheads” may not be drawing enough of the younger viewers ABC Family craves. It’s possible “Bunheads” could be a one-season wonder like the network’s “Huge” was in 2010.

TNT’s “The Closer” closed its run with a whopping 9.1 million viewers; 7.2 million viewers stuck around for its spinoff, “Major Crimes,” making “MC” cable’s top series launch of 2012. … TruTV has renewed reality series “Black Gold” for a fifth season to air this winter and has ordered a “Hardcore Pawn” spinoff set in Chicago to air later this year. … GSN’s revival of the game show “Pyramid,” debuting at 6 p.m. Sept. 3, will feature “Community” stars Yvette Nicole Brown and Danny Pudi in its first week. Other celebs playing this fall include Kate Flannery (“The Office”), Dot Marie Jones (“Glee”), Josh Malina (“Scandal”) and Megyn Price (“Rules of Engagement”). … CBS’s “The Price Is Right” is conducting its first-ever search to find a male model for a one-week gig on the game show. The search will air as a Web series at PriceisRight.com. … NBC will re-air the pilots for “Go On” and “Animal Practice,” which got sneak previews during the Olympics, at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. … The Summer Olympics from London may have been a hit for NBC, but Pittsburghers were less interested in the games than viewers in some other cities. Pittsburgh, market No. 23, ranked No. 43 among the Top 56 TV markets for Olympic viewing, according to TVSpy.com. … AE has canceled “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” after seven seasons. … Verizon’s FiOS TV has added BBC America in HD as Channel 689. … Comcast has added Outside TV, devoted to outdoor adventuring (kayaking, surfing, mountain climbing, etc.), to its lineup (Channel 258 in traditional Comcast systems; Channel 292 on former Adelphia systems). … “Across America” (5 p.m. Sunday, TV5Monde USA) visits Pittsburgh this weekend to look at “The Two Andys” mural of Andy Warhol and Andrew Carnegie and to chat with Andrew Butcher about GTECH, a local nonprofit. TV5Monde USA is a French language network carried locally by Verizon’s FiOS TV (Channel 1771) and DISH Network (Channel 731). … Next month WQED will air “Why We Dance: The Story of THON” (8 p.m. Sept. 27), a behind-the-scenes look at the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon that raises funds to help combat pediatric cancer. … WQED’s “Pittsburgh From the Air II” will premiere at 8 p.m. Oct. 4 and will feature scenes shot above Pittsburgh International Airport, North Park, McKeesport, Oakland, Baden, Beaver Falls, McConnells Mill State Park, the Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset and Smithton, among other locations.

Today’s TV QA column responds to questions about “The Killing,” the CBS Sunday night schedule and local newscasts online. This week’s Tuned In Journal includes posts on “The Closer” and “Major Crimes,” “Stars Earn Stripes” and “Toy Hunter” and “Collection Intervention.” Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week’s podcast includes conversation about “Animal Practice,” “Go On” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

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