At the heart of The Rhythm of Life, a star-studded 3 x 1-hour series, is music. Bobby McFerrin describes it as a ‘primal need,’ and Billy Joel calls it ‘a huge force.’ For Susan Wittenberg, vice president of programming at Ovation, it was the hook that made the series the right fit for the U.S. cable arts channel.
Rhythm, which premiered on Ovation last August, was a harmonious fit with the three-and-a-half-year-old channel’s mandate to blend highbrow art with pop culture, Wittenberg says. ‘It’s amazing because you have all these mega-rock stars talking about not just classical music, but the very structure of music. It’s really entertaining and has a lot to say.’
Legendary record producer and composer Sir George Martin (of The Beatles fame) hosts the US$1.25 million series, and looks at the musical tenets of rhythm, melody and harmony, each in its own one-hour episode. It is both a personal quest for Martin and an exploration of the essence of music, featuring such icons as Brian Wilson, The Bee Gees, Mark Knopfler, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, to name but a few.
Rhythm’s executive producer, Nicholas Claxton (of London-based Nicholas Claxton Productions), agrees with Wittenberg that what really makes the series sing is the calibre of the artists who appear in the program. ‘One of the caveats I had for making the series was that we had to gather some of the world’s greatest recording artists – household names, really. But more than that, in bringing them into the kind of musical journey that we were embarking on, they would have to play and perform, and not just talk about their music. It was
very impromptu and organic.’
The series made it onto Ovation’s airwaves in somewhat of a roundabout way. The Discovery Channel and TLC had originally been on board for the series’ U.S. rights, but dropped out during the financing phase. In the end, it was produced primarily with funding from the BBC, which took North American and U.K. rights (the series aired on BBC1), and Buena Vista International, which took all other world rights.
Wittenberg picked up Rhythm for a three-month window after the BBC sold North American rights to London-based distributor/producer NVC Arts, with whom Ovation has a 50-title coproduction output deal. NVC has also licensed the series to American Public Television as a second window.
Claxton admits that although he had originally envisioned the series’ U.S. premiere on a larger channel, he is quite happy Ovation was able to air it. ‘We would have loved to see the series hit a PBS or a Discovery, but that was NVC’s decision because they bought up the North American rights. Still, we are really pleased that Ovation took it. It is sort of a thinking person’s series, and aimed primarily at a music-loving audience.’
Wittenberg says she looks to programs like Rhythm, which ran as a primetime evening event over three consecutive weeks, to draw in a more mainstream audience. ‘You have to come up with ways to try to attract attention to your network. We think there’s a better chance to do that through events like this than through a long-running series.’
Rhythm also fit well with Wittenberg’s goal to seek out programming that can be further explored via the channel’s website. At www.ovationtv.com, people can check out detailed information about Martin and the different artists in the series, and teachers can access
related lesson plans and interactive activities in an area entitled ‘School Zone’ (part of the U.S. ‘Cable in the Classroom’ initiative).
‘We are just about at the point of substantial expansion,’ says Wittenberg. Over the next year, she plans to look for projects in which additional rights, like DVD and video, can be acquired along with programming, so Ovation can maximize its franchising efforts and continue to grow its brand.