“For me, art was always imposing and inaccessible,” he says. “But I learned that, with a little effort, you can crack the code and find a whole new world.”
Slava doesn't exactly have the pedigree you'd expect from a newly appointed czar of an arts-and-culture cable channel. He grew up among cornfields in the blue-collar community of Bloomington Normal, Ill. (“It's near Peoria,” he offers, helpfully). Although he was an avid reader, he was “not steeped in the fine arts.” He saw the ocean for the first time at age 18 and never took a trip abroad until he was well into his 30s.
After leaving his hometown, Slava nurtured a burgeoning curiosity in the arts while attending Northwestern University, where—much to his parent's dismay—he majored in oral interpretation and got involved in the theater scene. “I found I could get a lot of attention doing theater,” he recalls. “I got a girlfriend while I was in The Sound of Music.”
From “Starving Artist” to TV Exec
Having spent his undergraduate years acting in plays and penning short stories and poetry, Slava decided he wanted to be a writer. But when he consulted with an astrologer, she told him his future instead lay in the TV industry.
“As a writer, that is the last thing you want to hear,” Slava says. “I was like, 'Television? Never!'”
And thus, he embarked on what he affectionately calls his “starving-artist” phase. He was a writer, a critic, a poet, a bartender, a stained-glass– window artist and a grip at Universal Studios—to name a very limited few—for the next 15 years.
Finding himself at a crossroads in 1990, he visited another astrologer; again, all signs pointed to television. This time, he listened. He took a temporary position at A&E, and the following year, it turned into a full-time job. He was 40 years old.
Rising to become A&E's director of drama and performing arts programming, Slava oversaw live programming, several mystery series imported from Britain and long-form programming. He also executive-produced numerous specials, including the fan favorite Live by Request, a call-in program that allowed viewers to talk to musicians and request songs.
When Sony pitched him the program, Slava recalls, “I just got it. It was the first time I felt like I knew what I was doing. And, once we sold it and I was sitting in the control room for the live taping of the first episode, I felt like I had really connected with the audience. It was a big moment.”
After his tenure at A&E, Slava moved to the upstart arts network Trio, where he served as VP of acquisitions and program planning under network chief Lauren Zalaznick. While at Trio, he ushered in memorable series like the gay-themed OutZone and fan favorite Brilliant but Cancelled.
“That show really works because it is an experience that everyone knows,” he explained of Brilliant, which resurrected episodes of series that had died too soon. “We have all had a show we loved pulled off the air for being ahead of its time.”
When Zalaznick jumped to arts mainstay Bravo, Slava went along. As VP of digital content, he launched the network's new Website, including blogs and editorial content. He also refashioned Trio's Brilliant but Cancelled and OutZone into online portals.
In August 2006, Ovation TV, which had struggled since premiering quietly in 1997, was acquired by an investor group that included Hubbard Broadcasting, investment bank Lazard Freres and The Weinstein Co. The following December, new CEO Charles Segars tapped Slava to help relaunch the network.
“The reality today is, being a good media executive means capturing an audience and turning them into consumers,” says Segars. “Kris knows how to give viewers the arts where and when and how they want them.”
Ovation relaunched last month to more than 15 million subscribers, nearly three times its initial reach. The channel inked a deal with DirectTV to give it full national coverage for the first time in its history, and its Website now features microsites for niche arts audiences.
And that's only the beginning, says Slava. He wants to bring arts to the local level, offer more feature-length films, and increase the coverage of both mainstream and alternate art forms.
“If you can show someone who loves comic books—which is an art—where comic books intersect with what is considered a more classical form of art, like the opera, a light goes on for them,” he says.
With a programming résumé that has garnered 12 Emmy nominations and multiple nods from Cable Ace and Poe Awards, Slava has conceived a “three-pronged approach” for Ovation.
“First, you show the viewer something they already know, something they can recognize,” he says. “For example, we are going to air the movie Frida [with Salma Hayek as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo]. Secondly, you then show them something related—for example, in relation to Frida, we are offering a program on a somewhat unknown artist named David Alfaro Siqueiros, who worked with [Kahlo's husband] Diego Rivera. Finally, you show them something they have never heard of, and that is how you draw them in, get them talking and get them to come back.”
After a hectic move from New York to Los Angeles, Slava is settling in with his wife, documentary producer Jacinda Davis, whom he met at the Emmys (“She won. I didn't,” he explains), and their three young sons.
Having taken the proverbial road—or roads—less traveled, does Slava believe he has, in fact, arrived? “Absolutely,” he says. “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
If slow and steady wins the race, as the saying goes, Kris Slava looks to be closing in on the finish line. A late bloomer who got his start in television when he was 40, Slava has found his calling as an innovative cable programmer. Now, as senior VP of programming and production for the small arts cable network Ovation TV, Slava, 56, is looking to make the arts more accessible to TV viewers—without dumbing them down.