12/20/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

A Tenuous Ovation, or The Death Of Arts TV?

There's an uproar in certain quarters over Time Warner Cable's plan to drop Ovation TV from its line-up at year-end. With Ovation currently in some 55 million households, the loss of Time Warner's approximately 12 million national subscribers is going to be a big hit - in viewers, in carriage revenues and subsequently in advertising revenue. As the only current cable channel dedicated to the arts, this would seem to be a significant blow.

Personally, I can't say, because I'm a Manhattanite who doesn't get my cable service from Time Warner, and I've never been able to see Ovation's programming as a result (my cable company, RCN, doesn't carry it). In theory, I support Ovation's mission, but Ovation losing some 20% of its viewer base isn't going to affect me at all. And since I've never had a conversation with anyone, in person or online, who has cited a great show they saw on Ovation, I'm not sure it's going to have much effect on anyone I know. And I know a lot of folks who like, and like to talk about, the arts.

While Alec Baldwin is on Twitter urging people to petition against this heinous assault on American arts, it is no doubt too little too late. There doesn't appear to be a negotiation going on; Time Warner has simply notified Ovation that they'll be dropped at the end of their contract, on December 31. And we all know how much work is going to get done in the next 10 days, so a reprieve seems unlikely.

Ovation has taken the position that this is a battle between sports, which they say Time Warner wants to emphasize even more, and arts. Time Warner has retorted that in a review of Ovation's programming, they don't actually see much in the way of legitimate arts programming. Time Warner is also not a charity.

I took a look at the Ovation schedule this morning, for the first time in a while, and while the holiday season doesn't always represent a true picture of any channel's usual fare, Ovation does seem to be a veritable festival of a handful of Nutcracker performances, a marathon of the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, and reruns of a couple of their original shows, with which I'm unfamiliar, for obvious reasons. The available schedule does seem to support, in part, the Time Warner "slur."

Much as I had hopes for Ovation when it was announced, I was hugely skeptical. I had watched Bravo, once an arts network, convert into all-reality TV all the time, while A&E has retained its letters but jettisoned its original commitment to arts AND entertainment, opting for the latter alone. Of course, in an era where a science channel has a series about Finding Bigfoot, names don't seem to matter much in the cable universe. If you want truth in advertising, you can find veracity at The Food Network.

During its launch, I do recall seeing ads for Ovation, but can't remember any of late; in this era of targeted online come-ons, where I am bombarded with ads to buy tickets to Broadway shows, Ovation is scarce (though perhaps the algorithms know I can't see the programming, and bypass me). But if the online schedule is any indication, even if I had Ovation TV, I wouldn't be watching.

As this has been playing out for a few days, I suddenly hit on an inspiration: what if there was a not-for-profit cable channel dedicated to the arts? I was very proud of my innovative solution, until I recalled that we have one, at least in part: PBS. While it is hardly exclusive to the arts, PBS certainly has high quality programming: look to Live at Lincoln Center and Great Performances as examples; the marketing people, fearing stigma perhaps, have dropped the word "Theatre" from Masterpiece after decades.

I must admit, my PBS watching has narrowed to Downton Abbey and Sherlock; long gone are the days of American Playhouse (1980s) and Theatre in America (1970s), which really appealed to me. And while I do enjoy the occasional James Taylor concert or Doo-Wop reunion, there's been a drift from arts to entertainment there as well, though thankfully of a caliber vastly higher than The Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo. Strangely, some of PBS' programming competes now not with other material on TV, but movie theatre screenings of the Met Opera, NT Live and the like, proving that people will even leave the comfort of their home for the arts on a screen, and even pay for the right to do so. There does seem to be an arts market.

Whether the loss of the Time Warner audience is a death blow to Ovation remains to be seen, but it's sure going to hurt, and if the channel fades, or metamorphoses into something unrecognizable like its predecessors, I don't think it's going to be a major gap in America's cultural life, sad to say. While they did air a BBC docudrama about Monty Python I would have liked to have seen, I can probably find Dolly Parton specials and Johnny Cash at Folsom through other means.

The problem, of course, is that each effort at an arts network has required vastly more capital than has been allocated. As a result, instead of creating original programming that becomes must-see cultural TV, a lot of their airtime is filled with acquisitions, much of which is either dated or available through other means (perhaps you're familiar with TCM, IFC and the Sundance Channel, as well as the intermittently rewarding PBS); it is also repeated ad nauseum in different dayparts. Warmed-over culture is not much of a benefit.

I'm being harsh to Ovation based solely on looking at their schedule, and nothing here should be construed as wishing for their demise. Indeed, I'd like to see some philanthropic media baron decide to make an unwise investment in the channel and ratchet up its original programming, to see once and for all whether the arts can compete in the video marketplace, which seems to be ever-multiplying in its opportunities, and narrow-casting potential.

If we're going to ever have a viable and successful dedicated arts channel on television, it can't survive on leftovers from other channels, even if they're from other countries. It needs new programming, significant financial resources, and genuine originality. The cable universe is a very ugly place. After all, if Oprah Winfrey has had to struggle, just think of the uphill battle for the arts.