In the world of outdoor television, stability has been as elusive as a brown trout in a shallow stream in late summer.
The category is beset with many forces stirring the waters: a scuttled merger between the two biggest networks, Sportsman Channel and Outdoor Channel; secretive plans by the billionaire new owner of the largest publicly owned hunting and fishing network; competition from mainstream networks; and, in the view of executives who run the channels, a maddening move by distributors to balkanize them in tiers alongside pro and college sports networks.
Despite this, most of the outdoor players said that, as with fishing, patience will win out in a category that they argue is more than niche programming — see Duck Dynasty, the runaway A&E hit that reaches a broader base. It’s more a lifestyle than a fan club, they said.
“There is certainly value in the outdoor programming, but the programming is nonexclusive, so no one can corral the marketplace,” Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, said. NBC Sports Network has a netful of fishing shows and many RSNs go out into the field as well, he noted, while such mainstream players as National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel and the Weather Channel have been capturing viewers with shows like Wicked Tuna, Gold Rush and Prospectors, respectively.
Until last month, InterMedia Outdoor Holdings, which owns the Sportsman Channel, was on the verge of acquiring its rival in the space, Outdoor Channel. But Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, also is a 50% owner of World Fishing Network, ultimately topped InterMedia’s bid.
“Consoldiation really makes a lot of sense in a category that is somewhat splintered,” said Chris Bevilacqua, cofounder of Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, a business advisory firm focused on the sports industry. A merger of Sportsman and Outdoor would have yielded a single stronger product that could have boosted distribution, as both networks are currently in less than 40 million homes.
Outdoor, Kroenke and WFN would not discuss the current deal — the latter two parties declined comment — but LHB Sports’ Berke said while “there may be value in separate brands,” there’s also value in integrated sponsorship packages and blended back-office operations.
Bevilacqua said he wouldn’t be surprised if WFN eventually folded into Outdoor Channel: “Distributors are looking to carry less stuff , not more stuff .”
Providers are also looking for alternatives to a one-size-fits-all programming menu for viewers, so outdoor networks may increasingly find themselves on narrower tiers. Verizon Communications just created a Sports Pass tier for its FiOS TV platform that will include networks like ESPN Classic and CBS Sports Network, as well as Outdoor, Sportsman and WFN.
“We always endeavor to make content available on a volitional basis,” Ben Grad, director of content strategy and acquisition for Verizon FiOS, said, adding that early feedback shows that “customers are interested in this kind of choice.”
Tiers can be sustainable not only for distributors and customers but for the smaller networks, Grad said, adding that Verizon wants programming diversity.
Dennis Gillespie, senior vice president of distribution for Outside Television, agreed. He said he hopes to grow the network from 8 million homes to 12 million to 15 million households by year-end, through a mix of broad and tiered distribution.
“Fewer than 5% of our total subscribers are served by packages with less than 10% penetration,” Tom Hornish, CEO of the 39.5 million-home Outdoor Channel, said. The category’s biggest network has found viewers with video-on-demand and recently joined Comcast’s TV Everywhere lineup.
Hornish is also bullish on the international market, noting that Outdoor has added 10 million full-time international subscribers in more than 50 countries since launching overseas in 2010.
“Our distribution efforts are yielding growth and we also had a great ad-sales season,” Sportsman Channel CEO Gavin Harvey said, noting the 32 million-home channel’s ability to leverage InterMedia’s print and online assets. “We believe we have a compelling case for distributors that we are not a niche.”
Though analysts still see outdoors as a niche space, tiering may not hurt these neworks too badly, Berke said. For one, the channels weren’t likely to reach full distribution on a broad platform, he said. Also, they rely more on ad revenue than subscriber fees, and their passionate fan base would likely seek them out on a tier, he added.
Though tiers will give outdoor networks a distinct place to be found, Bevilacqua and others argued, it will make it harder for the channels to add new viewers. “That will hurt them, even though it makes sense for the distributors and consumers,” Bevilacqua said.
The networks continue to expand their programming. Outdoor Channel, which snapped up programming from ESPN and Versus as those networks left the genre, has increased its original programming budget while developing partnerships with organizations like NASCAR and the National Rifle Association, Hornish said.
Sportsman Channel has taken its relationship with the NRA to a new level with NRANews Cam & Co., the industry’s only live daily talk show. “We can address political, technological and other issues in a topical way,” Harvey said.
Even tiny Outside Television is adding feature films to primetime, thanks to a deal with IMG Media, as well as new series such as Epic- Quest, about expedition operators in Alaska. “We are looking for a tentpole series,” Rob Faris, senior vice president of programming and production, said. “That is extremely important to us.”
But there’s a catch: Viewers and distributors can sate their outdoor jones elsewhere on the dial. In recent years, such networks as Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel and The Weather Channel have scored big hits with their high-production- value, more broadly distributed outdoor adventure shows.
“It points up the difficulty for the outdoor networks,” Berke said.
Despite this, mainstream networks are validating the category with their genre hits, such as Wicked Tuna.
Pointing to Gold Rush and Jungle Gold as examples, Discovery Channel vice president and executive producer Christo Doyle said, “The natural surroundings are a character in our adventure shows.”