Casting Lines For Viewers

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Some 80 million sportsmen can't be wrong. That's how many hunters, anglers and “wildlife watchers” there are in this country, according to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. And that has networks, advertisers and programmers seeing great opportunities in the great outdoors.

The appetite for outdoor sports and recreation programming is on the rise, reported the National Sporting Goods Association, with hunting and fishing Americans outnumbering motor sports fans by more than two to one. Hunting and fishing groups alone grew 68% between 2001 and 2006.

None of which would come as a surprise to networks such as the Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel and Versus. And joining the programming scene this year is Maximum Adventure Network, which launched on DirecTV earlier this month, proffering its own programming from the realms of hunting and fishing, as well as boating, all-terrain vehicles and four-wheeling.

Yet outdoor enthusiasts remain “the most disenfranchised viewers in TV,” according to Gavin Harvey, president and CEO of Versus, formerly OLN.

“There are tens of millions of anglers and hunters — more than golf. But there's little quality programming available,” Harvey said. “We saw this as a business and advertising opportunity.”

Others such as the Outdoor Channel, with its 31 million viewers, and the Sportsman Channel agree.

“There has been lots of traumatic changes the past few years, with some networks morphing into sports networks and minor players coming and going. But now there's more content to acquire, and for advertisers and consumers, it's a great genre to be in,” Outdoor Channel senior vice president of marketing and research Denise Conroy-Galley said.

It's also a genre in flux, as its audience's programming expectations evolve.

“Viewers don't want their grandfathers' hunting trips,” Conroy-Galley said. “They are a benchmark for change and want younger, edgier, hipper content, with split screens, different editing and HD. The changes put a modern face on an industry in need of an update.”

Case in point is the multiplatform strategy being executed by the Sportsman Channel and its parent company InterMedia Outdoors Holdings.

The plan, explained IMO president and CEO Jeff Paro, is to leverage the company's considerable outdoor media holdings which include 30 regional game and fish publications, 17 outdoor industry publications, radio shows and an online presence.

With 6.3 million viewers, The Sportsman Channel has some ground to cover in its effort to close the gap with the Outdoor Channel. Nonetheless, the network believes that its different business model has the network poised for growth.

“Our goal is to leverage the full suite of media opportunities to that market,” Paro said. “We've been in conversations with cable operators for six months about on demand and have developed a VOD model. It's a huge market, with 44 million fishermen fishing across many species. There's scale and passion in outdoor.”

Another development impacting programmers is the growing popularity of high-definition. Forty percent of the respondents to an ABI Research study said they own at least one HDTV set, and ABI vice president Stan Schatt predicts consumers “are likely to consume a lot more video over the next several years.”

That trend is also being mirrored in the outdoor programming space.

“We're all HD from an in-house production standpoint and will move to all HD. Everyone is trying to move to that format. We've already invested seven figures,” Paro said.

But he is quick to add that HD is just part of the picture, saying “it's about creating programs and content and selling a multimedia package to advertisers that delivers across multiplatforms like the Web and pages in our magazines. They want to engage customers, not just eyeballs.”

For Harvey and Versus, high-definition is “significant. Not from a rating standpoint but from a position of leadership. When advertisers see shows in HD, you absolutely must do it if you're serious.”

Being taken seriously in today's competitive outdoor market means walking the walk, Harvey added. “If you call yourself the official white tail channel, you'd better deliver. We want to deliver better fishing and hunting shows, and better TV, with personalities.”

Harvey said the network is stepping up its white tail hunting presence with more Web site shows and information, on demand programming, and most notably, HD. The push is part of a commitment to dispell what Harvey described as “a misconception that we were de-emphasizing the outdoor” when Versus expanded its programming to include sports such as professional hockey and cycling (Tour de France).

“We always said hunting and fishing was our bedrock, but we had a lot of explaining to do,” Harvey said. “There was a concern we were abandoning the category. We've made great efforts to be sure that didn't happen.”

Part of the challenge for these networks is defining what “outdoor programming” actually is, and that means identifying what viewers really want to watch.

“The challenge is to narrow the gap between our 31 million homes out of 81 million possible homes,” said Randy Brown, senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the Outdoor Channel. “But it's a real challenge. For example, we experimented with boating shows and personal watercraft shows, but they didn't rate well, so we discontinued them. It told us that just because it's outdoors, viewers won't necessarily watch it.”

What they will watch, according to Conroy-Galley, is hunting and fishing, which can crossover to interests in other sports and outdoor activities.

“People who like to hunt and fish have an affinity for off-road motor sports,” she said. “That is a guiding force for us moving forward. But traditional hunting, fishing and shooting is 90% of our core viewers.”

Still, programmers are exploring a variety of partnerships, alliances and types of content to grow their networks and the kind of shows that they offer.

“We're partnering with different fishing and hunting organizations like the Boy Scouts, and want to make scouting relevant to TV. The demographics are expanding beyond the 18-34 year-olds, so we're pushing for better outdoor content by working closely with quality producers and figuring out how to move to 100% HD. That's the benchmark,” Conroy-Gallery said.

There's a benchmark of sorts being created on the Web side as well. “I think we're already at critical mass on the Internet,” Paro said. “The business model is based on getting outdoor programming to kids and family. We have 9,000 articles online and 350 hours of evergreen radio content, and we've launched new online video technology to re-edit shows. If we produce it, they will come.”

According to Brown, “To be competitive, we can't have just a one-dimensional product. We need to provide opportunities for [cable, satellite and telco] operators.”

In terms of content that can expand their target audience, one area that outdoor programmers are paying more attention to is conservation and the environment.

“Some feel the tradition of conservation in hunting and fishing has been lost. The original environmentalists were anglers and hunters, but it's diverged through the years,” Harvey said. “Now, there's pressure on our habitat that goes beyond hunting and fishing. The restoration of that includes a role for TV to make an impact on conservation. We want to connect the green movement with people who have always been connected to the environment. There's a business opportunity for TV to identify a need to conserve that's not being met. We want to apply the power of TV for that.”

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