Roger L. Werner Jr., the co-chairman of 39.1-million-subscriber Outdoor Channel, was CEO from 1995-2001 at Speedvision (renamed Speed when sold to Fox) and Outdoor Life Network (which has evolved into NBC Sports Network). His long resume also includes stints as COO and, later, CEO at ESPN. Last September, when reports first emerged that Fox wanted to convert Speed into the national sports network Fox Sports 1, I spoke with Werner about how the former sister networks Speedvision and OLN have developed into rival national sports networks that Fox and NBCU, respectively, are pitting against Disney Co.’s ESPN. Werner updated his remarks a bit in another telephone interview this week.
Q. What do you think of how those two networks, Speedvision and OLN, have ended up, now that Speed is being converted into Fox Sports 1?
A. I think it’s a case of big organizations, big ambitions. I saw this as kind of inevitable, not necessarily shocking. But it is disappointing to me that the cable programming industry is kind of devolving into an oligopoly where everybody is just doing their own version of everybody else’s thing. When we started ESPN back in the late 1970’s, when that network was launched and we were building it in the 80’s, it was unique. An all-sports channel was something different and created tremendous value for our cable and satellite distributors. And I felt that way about the launch of Speedvision and OLN, that we created something really unique and special for the audiences that were interested in those kind of editorial concepts. So, I’m personally somewhat disappointed to see this development. But I’m not shocked by it. I think a lot of the specialized content that we were creating with Speed and OLN will probably migrate to the Internet.
Q. Back in the ‘90s, it was probably easier to have an original idea for a network, because there wasn’t that much programming available. Does it make sense that now some of these networks have broadened their concepts?
A. I think it’s honestly just that as the cable operators’ ability to pay increasingly high fees has diminished, all the cable programmers are now more dependent than ever on advertising revenue. So they’re more dependent than ever on the Nielsen meter. So they’re all just chasing the highest-rated program format whatever that might be. That’s really what’s going on. They’re all slaves to the Nielsen meter and so they’re all going to pursue a kind of homogenized diet.
Q. What do you think about the future of independent channels?
A. I think the independents are headed to the Internet. I don’t think there are going to be many, if any, independents left in cable TV. Cable television is now the province of four or five big companies, and you know who they are. (Last week, Werner amended his answer a bit: I am seeing the potential for content distribution maybe in hybrid forms. I think it probably is more accurate to say a lot of that programming will probably find hybrid distribution models that include the Internet. A lot of it will migrate to other channels and remain on television, but I think a lot of it will find hybrid distribution outlets like the Internet.)
Q. Do you feel pride in how these two networks you created have evolved?
A. I’m very proud of the people that are still left in those companies. They’ve done a great job of building them and making them bigger and stronger. But, again, I regret seeing them lost their editorial focus, that’s all. (Werner amplified a bit on the Speedvision brand this week, after I mentioned that several Speedvision alums still in the Fox Sports Media Group mentioned how fans loved that channel and everything associated with it, including gimme caps: “In my 30 years building television brands, which include ESPN and OLN and Prime Ticket and Outdoor Channel and a variety of others, Speedvision was the most successful network launch that I’ve ever been associated with. And that brand resonated more deeply and more powerfully with its target audience than any other brand that I’ve built for a targeted audience in television. I believe that the product we built was a really exceptional product that millions in our target audience embraced from the day it launched. It was that much a success story.”)