MIPTV Q&A: Michelle Zajic, VP acquisitions, Ovation

Ahead of this year's edition of MIPTV in Cannes, realscreen spoke with arts and culture cable network Ovation's VP of acquisitions about what she's looking out for on the Croisette.
March 21, 2012

At a time when so many cable channels are abandoning the arts in favor of more reality-oriented fare, American arts and culture cable Ovation is remaining firmly entrenched in the visual arts, music and dance space. Dance competitions, music biographies, and docusoaps with an artistic bent are working well for the network, which recently greenlit  A Chance to Dance, a dance competition series from So You Think You Can Dance producers Nigel and Simon Lythgoe.

Ahead of MIPTV, realscreen spoke with Ovation’s VP of acquisitions, Michelle Zajic, for the low-down on what she’s looking to buy, what she’s not looking to buy and trends she’s seeing in the factual space.

What are you looking to acquire at MIPTV this year?

On the doc side, we’re looking for bigger, bolder and better than we’ve ever acquired before. We’re looking for stories about really high-profile artists, musicians, [and] folks that are in the arts sphere and we’re looking for really surprising, dramatic storytelling. We’re not necessarily looking for the biographies that everyone has produced. We’re looking for something that digs a little deeper [and] reveals some interesting information that hasn’t been revealed before. We’re really just looking for something that’s going to be surprising.

We’re also going for documentaries with the highest possible production values. We’re really looking for sleek, well-told, well-shot docs peppered with folks of note who are being interviewed.

What are you looking for in terms of formats or series?

As with any other U.S. cable channel, you can really make your fortunes off of a successful series. So far we’ve produced our own series but we’re always on the look-out for something that has the potential to really spark with the U.S. audience. We’ll know it when we see it. We can’t tell anyone what exactly we want them to do but we’re looking for interesting ideas. As we go forward in 2012 and 2013 we’ll definitely be looking for series.

What has been working for Ovation as of late?

We have some exciting things that we’ve put on air that have actually surprised us a little bit. We have a new block called ‘Artists and Icons’ that was born out of a previous block called ‘American Revolutionaries’ and what we’ve done is broadened it out. So we’re looking for documentaries about artists and icons that can be international. In the past, we’ve had tremendous amounts of success with folks [such as] Johnny Cash. Airing Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison – it really knocked our socks off. We didn’t realize just how much the U.S. audience was interested in seeing Johnny Cash, specifically in his U.S. prison performances. Now Folsom Prison doesn’t actually feature the video so it was quite interesting how the producers used the audio track to create a visual landscape to bring to life the audio track from his visit and performance there.

And then biographies on folks such as Freddie Mercury, Elvis, 2Pac, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix – the true icons that have lived beyond their lives have really resonated with our audience. Those are the things we’re going to continue to look for to populate our artists and icons block.

What trends have you been seeing in the factual space?

We’re being pitched a lot of dance programming. We’ve been pitched a lot of interesting biographies and a lot of music-based programming. You’d be surprised at how many performance programs out there that have been pitched to us. We continue to see a lot of those year-to-year and I would say those are going to continue to be on the landscape because they’re very easy to produce and people love them.

As far as trends for us, we love passionate and dramatic storytelling and so for us. Docusoaps are something that we’re looking into. Something coming down the pipeline that is [reality show] Motor City Rising, which is about artists in Detroit that are doing unique things in the community to revitalize it.

What we really love are the stories of what they’re doing not just to revitalize the community but their stories. These are people who are incredibly passionate about what they do and incredibly dedicated and, as a result, watching them becomes a real joy because you’re in it with them. You want see what they’re going to do next, how they’re going to put themselves on the line, what they’re going to do to make their dreams reality. We really love going in that direction. Everybody wants to see the story of an underdog and I think people love seeing stories that involve incredibly creativity, things they may not have thought about doing themselves. Having the marriage of both is one of the most wonderful combinations we can think of.

What aren’t you looking to acquire?

To be honest, there isn’t much that we have completely discounted at this point. We still really have our fingers in pretty much every aspect of the arts world. We’re still looking for documentaries in every facet of the arts – both performing and visual. We are still looking for classical, we still do visual arts docs and we still do music performance, so there really isn’t much that we’ve said no to.

We’re not interested in escaping our space at this juncture. We’ve had a lot pitched to us in the recent past with the idea that we’re ready to go in a different direction and, to be quite honest, we’re not.

What type of rights do you look for?

I’m glad you’re asking this question because this is something that is very important to us. We really want to be the preeminent distributor, if you will, of content in the arts space so when we’re looking for rights, we’re not just looking for linear television rights. We’re looking for VOD, we’re looking for TV-E and in some cases we’re looking for the ability to stream online. We’re really looking for almost every right in terms of platforms in the U.S.

What kind of budgets do you have and how much do you pay?

I know you hate hearing this answer because you probably hear it from everyone, but it does depend. And what it depends on is whether or not it’s a straight-acquired product or something we’re entering into, like a pre-buy, a copro or a full commission. Our rates can start as low as $2,000 an hour and some commissions – especially in the doc space – can go as high as $150,000 per hour. I think we’ve gone just over $150,000 but not by much. We’re really still in that space.

Who do you view as Ovation’s main competition?

As you know, there are so many networks that have essentially left our space that there really isn’t a direct competitor. There’s no one that does what we do full-time. We do have some channels that we find ourselves competing with for some documentary product, but typically it’s just PBS and Sundance that are the competitors that have large enough budgets – and IFC as well – and can take some of these projects before we do. There are smaller entities but typically we’re able to get projects before they do.

What demo does Ovation target?

We are pretty much squarely adults 25 to 54. One thing that we found a little bit surprising is that it’s a fairly even mix between men and women. We’re not finding it weighing heavily in one direction or the other.

What are your most important markets?

Obviously the top 52 [metropolitan areas] are the markets for us. This should come as really no surprise but New York and LA are our top two markets.  Other major metropolitan areas are key for us but what is interesting to note is you have a lot of folks in the “flyover” states that have an appetite for the arts and, in many cases, they’re never going to be able to see certain things on a stage or some of the bigger music acts may not make it to their town. What we offer is for them to see what they may not have access to.

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing at the moment?

In terms of programming, it’s a very difficult world for producers out there. Our budgets, as I just told you, are fairly modest. The biggest challenge for us is to be able to maximize those dollars in terms of getting the highest possible production value for the money. It’s very difficult to do documentaries on $150,000 an hour in terms of getting rights. We’ve been pretty clever and creative in being able to do documentaries that have a lot of impact, but don’t necessarily feature a lot of clips or original music. They may feature a song or two or a handful of clips and we’ve been able to make those work to maximum efficiency.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.