News

Gone Fishin’ (for Subs)

10/24/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Norwalk Islands, Conn. — In a driving rain,
my kidneys are getting pounded with each slam
of the 24-foot Skeeter boat on the waves as we
make our way across the Long Island Sound,
one of the richest saltwater fishing grounds in
the United States.

Bouncing alongside me is Gavin Harvey, the
CEO of Sportsman Channel, who decided the
salt water and fresh air would be more conducive
to discussing the challenges of running an
outdoor network. Casting but no blasting.

We’ve come for striped bass, the favored
gamefish of the Northeast, and for bluefish, the
toothy fighter found throughout these waters.

Capt. Blake Smith has spotted birds diving in
the distance after a fishless first hour, a sign that
baitfish are moving to the top from bigger fish below. After a
few seconds, they move on. And so do we.

We are headed to a spot across the sound where he saw
the rare species we’re all dying to see, let alone catch: false
albacore.

Little tunny, or albies, as they’re called, are ferocious
gamefish that can churn the waters in a feeding frenzy
and strip off a line before an angler has had a chance to
respond.

As the boat jumps like a porpoise through the water, Harvey,
who could pass for a
taller Alan Alda with less
hair, begins to unspool stories
from his first year at the
network.

He was named CEO in
July 2010, with a mission
to expand the sub base of
the eight-year-old network,
which is dedicated to hunting,
shooting and fishing.
Sportsman Channel, which
reaches 27 million homes,
is owned by Leo Hindery’s
private-equity firm, Inter-
Media Outdoor Holdings,
which operates a stable of consumer hunting and fishing
magazines and original TV programs.

The search for subs — and ad dollars — isn’t easy these
days, especially for an independent network in the outdoor
category. Big boats, for example, a high-end advertising category,
aren’t exactly flying out of the showroom in this economy.
And bigger, better-capitalized competitors, such as
Outdoor Channel, are competing for the exact scarce space
on basic-digital lineups.

We ease up to one in a chain of tree-covered islands off
Norwalk, over underwater boulders and shallow reefs. We
throw poppers, white plastic jigs and flies. Nothing.

The captain slows the boat again, but only for a moment
— the birds in the distance aren’t “crashing” the water the
way he would like.

Harvey has immersed himself in the business with field
trips like this, even taking up the difficult sport of bowhunting
for deer, which requires the stealth of a ninja. ”It’s
intense,” he said. And he has taken the search for subs personally,
tracking leads and talking personally with hundreds
of distribution executives at all the cable, satellite and telco
companies “at system, region, division and corporate levels.”
The network was recently moved from a sports
tier to the basic digital package in Chicago, a big
win he hopes to repeat around the country.

Much of the work of the Sportsman Channel
is evangelism, spreading the gospel of facts surrounding
the rod and gun crowd to dispel myths
and make a case that the audience is more widespread
than it appears.

America’s 80 million hunters and anglers contribute
some $76 billion into the economy, according
to the Congressional Sportsman Foundation.
Quick: Guess what American anglers
spend $1.1 billion a year on? Not equipment.
($5.3 billion.) Not food ($4.3 billion). Give up?
Bait.

“I want people to know,” Harvey told me later,
“that (1) hunting, shooting and fi shing is not a hobby for
American sportsmen, it is life; (2) that this category is not a
niche, it is huge and there are more than 80 million of us;
and (3) that Sportsman Channel is the leader in outdoor TV
for the American sportsman.” While Nos. 1 and 2 are certainly
true, I’m thinking Roger Werner, CEO of the publicly held,
Nielsen-rated Outdoor Network, might disagree with No. 3.

Indeed, these days, even as single-sport networks struggle
to get carriage, mainstream networks are starting to fish for
subscribers in the rod-and-gun space: on Animal Planet
(River Monsters); History
(Swamp People, Top Shot);
and Discovery Channel
(Sons of Guns).

As we cast, Harvey explains
how the challenge
gets complicated. The
investment of weeks of
phone calls and meetings
lobbying a cable operator,
for example, can go out the
window if the company is
restructured or the point
person leaves, which has
happened in both Time
Warner Cable and Comcast
markets. “You have to start all over,” he said.

We continue to cast, but no bites on the other side of the
island. The captain scans the horizon again. “There’s bait everywhere
— silversides, bay anchovies and menhaden,” he
said, to no one in particular. As we move to yet another spot,
I think to myself that finding new subs is a lot like fishing.

Harvey, who helped transform the Outdoor Life Network
into more of a sports service (under Comcast, OLN was
renamed Versus in 2006), said he has big ideas for promotion
(across screens and Intermedia’s magazines) and production.
The network has tweaked existing shows, such as
American Flyfisher
, and is preparing a new slate of programs
for 2012, including Dropped: Project Alaska, which follows
two brothers who are dropped on a river in a remote part of
Alaska to “pit their skills as hunters, woodsmen and anglers
against an unforgiving landscape.”

As we reach the shore across the sound, gulls are divebombing
the water in droves. Suddenly, my spinning reel
starts to sing. A bluefish. Harvey’s line starts to strip, too.
We’re in the middle of a bluefish feeding frenzy that lasts for
a solid hour.

If only winning more subs was this easy.