Now the cable channel is counting on a program lineup including those glittery names, along with unexpected artists, to convince viewers that arts programming can be expansive and engaging. Or, as executive Robert Weiss puts it, Ovation isn't "my parents' arts network."
The aim is to broaden the definition of art beyond the traditional areas, said Weiss, who came aboard as Ovation's chief creative officer in late 2012.
"It's not having it be so precious," he said. "There's a whole generation of people between the ages of 20 and 50, when they think of art they think of a painting hanging in the museum or classical ballet."
But the contemporary arts also comprise, for instance, of graffiti and hip-hop, Weiss said. Those are among the subjects covered in Ovation's "The Art Of" series, which has also explored artistry in sneakers, mixology, fashion and even sushi.
"Our show on sushi was never what you'd see on the Food Network. The chefs we focused on, they view themselves as Picassos, sculpting the fish," Weiss said.
Upcoming "The Art Of" episodes include one exploring fashion design on Nov. 20, burlesque on Dec. 12 and the holidays on Dec. 11.
There have been other channels that started as arts-centric but found different paths to follow, notably A&E and Bravo. There is substantial arts content on PBS but as part of a broader range of programming, while channels such as IFC and Sundance tend to focus on films and other narrative-driven fare.
That makes Ovation unusual and gives it cachet with those who want to colour outside the standard TV lines, said Weiss. Under his push for more original programming, the channel will end 2013 with about a dozen original series and the addition of more than 200 first-run hours compared with last year's 40 hours.
The peripatetic Franco will be part of the growth next year, among the splashy names that are a key part of Ovation's effort to raise its profile.
Details of the upcoming "James Franco Presents" are under wraps, but Weiss said the series will include extensive footage the actor shot in recent years of his art installations, poetry readings, teaching, movies and more, along with new projects and artists he's fostering.
"I am thrilled to work with Ovation, a network that has devoted itself to the arts. It is a truly unique situation and will yield unique results," Franco said when the series was announced. It's set to debut in the first quarter of 2014.
Ovation's approach also lured "Mad Men" star Hamm. "A Young Doctor's Notebook," co-produced by Hamm's Points West production company and starring Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe, followed its British debut with an airing on Ovation despite offers from other U.S. networks, Weiss said.
The same was true with "The Fashion Fund," featuring Vogue editor Wintour. The series, debuting Jan. 22, will follow the up-and-coming designers who vied for this year's $300,000 fund grant from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the magazine.
"We knew that Ovation would represent the experience of the competition in a way that no other network could," said Dawn Ostroff, president of Conde Nast Entertainment, a unit of Vogue publisher Conde Nast.
Weiss' focus on original programming has already paid off. Time Warner Cable, which dropped the channel at the beginning of this year, said it will restore carriage Jan. 1 and, in a joint release with Ovation, cited its increase of original arts programming and the launch of in-house production unit Ovation Studios.
The new deal with Time Warner restores the channel's reach to more than 50 million U.S. homes. According to Weiss, the channel also has rebounded from layoffs that he said were part of a reorganization that increased digital and social media staff.
Ovation declined to provide ratings, but industry analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Media sees reason for optimism: Time Warner's decision to bring back Ovation — even as other startups are vying for distribution — demonstrates the cable operator's belief in the appetite for arts programming and Ovation's ability to satisfy it.
But it's the audience's economic status, more than its size, that will decide Ovation's future, he said.
"Their ability to reach an upscale audience will be the bigger determinant" of success, Carroll said. "It's not how large, it's the quality of the audience that Time Warner and advertisers will be looking at."
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and http://twitter.com/lynnelber .