In early 2013, the outdoor-sports genre was pondering a possible merger between two of its leading networks, Sportsman Channel and Outdoor Channel.
That’s when Kroenke Sports & Entertainment swooped in and outbid Sportsman’s parent, InterMedia Partners, to add Outdoor Channel to its holdings, which also include World Fishing Network (plus the Denver Nuggets and other sports assets).
Several months later, the shifting landscape is coming into focus, not just at Outdoor Channel but also at Sportsman, World Fishing Network and MAVTV. In the hunt for distribution and eyeballs, all of the outdoor sector’s players are seeking programs that can broaden their appeal.
While they pledge fealty to their loyalists, outdoor networks are shifting focus beyond staple shows to build series that tap into the success of shows on general-market channels such as Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and A&E’s Duck Dynasty — programs that were arguably influenced by the outdoor networks themselves.
Pursuit Channel and the tiny Hunt Channel, meanwhile, are sticking to old-school approaches.
CHANGING VIEWERS’ IDEAS
Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore is making a “big push” to shake off the “preconceived ideas about who we are” in programming.
The network already features shows — such as Gun Stories, starring actor Joe Mantegna, and survival show Trip Gone Bad — with the same feel as popular programs on History of Discovery Channel, Liberatore said.
“These shows have not been backed as well as they could have been,” he said. “They have not had the megaphone they needed until now.”
He added: “We have the shingle out on the door for producers, but we are not waiting for them to come to us — the concepts are coming from us and we are going out there aggressively.”
But Outdoor won’t short shrift its hard-core hunting and fi shing fans. “We can grow this space without alienating anyone,” Liberatore said.
The same philosophy pervades World Fishing Network, now Outdoor’s sibling, network president Kim Carver said. “In January, we looked at our programming and decided we didn’t just want to be ‘two men in a boat’ programs, that we needed to shift gears and shake things up. We looked at what we want our brand to be and it’s about fishing but also conservation, family and travel, so now we’re looking at all new programs through that filter.”
WFN’s landscape now encompasses newsmagazine World Fishing Journal and travel-oriented Destination Spain, and Carver is planning for some semi-scripted reality shows and competition challenges.
Sportsman Channel is not getting left behind as the landscape evolves, CEO Gavin Harvey said. “We are redefining what the category is about,” he said. “We are adding high-quality lifestyle and reality shows, docu-tainment.”
Harvey points to a program like Aporkalypse, which features Ted Nugent on a feral hog hunt. It broke into the top 15 in men 18-49 among all cable networks, Harvey said, even though Sportsman is in fewer than 40 million homes. Shows like the history-oriented Guns & Gold or Meet the McMillans, about a hunting and outfitting family, demonstrate “we can do great programming that has a wider interest but our core audience will watch because it is better and more authentic than what you find on the bigger networks, where some of their shows look a little like freak shows,” Harvey said.
According to MAVTV president Bob Patison, a network doesn’t need to be a pure outdoor network to prove its bonafides.
MAVTV was taken over by Lucas Oil two years ago and now devotes much of its programming to motor sports. But it has consciously balanced that with programming with the “action and adventure non-fiction reality” genre.
“There is a healthy crossover” between racing fans and viewers for Dangerous Waters (a jet-skiing show) or Epic Conditions, Patison said. He said the network will introduce a dozen new shows over the next eight months, split about 50/50 between racing and action/ adventure.
LEAVE REALITY TO OTHERS
Pursuit CEO Rusty Faulk said some shows, like Duck Dynasty, are valuable to outdoor channels because they educate audiences about their world. Overall, though, he said reality TV in general “is better left to” networks aiming for a general audience.
Pursuit instead has brought in Ducks Unlimited TV, which had been on Outdoor Channel for years. “Producers are coming over to us,” he said. “And while we spend our limited budget on grassroots endemic publications, instead of other promotions, I think distributors are noticing.”
Talks have picked up with cable distributors: some 34 million out of 38 million subscribers of Pursuit Channel are on satellite TV, Faulk said.
Merrill Sport, founder of Hunt Channel, sees better prospects ahead for his service, which provides morning and primetime programming blocks four nights a week for Angel Two, a channel carried by Dish Network.
As producers of traditional shows get rolled off key spots on Outdoor and Sportsman, they might go to Pursuit. That that will push other producers off there and onto Hunt Channel, Sport predicted.
“And we’re looking at an avalanche of shows for us,” he said. “It’s a perfect situation for us.”
Outdoor-sports networks are looking for growth with programs that appeal to fans of such shows as Duck Dynasty and Deadliest Catch.