Hunting a Bigger Target

SPORTSMAN CHANNEL AIMS HIGHER THAN TIERS
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For years, networks in the outdoor category have often been shunted to the ghettoes of sports tiers in cable operators’ programming packages, despite having nothing to do with pro football, baseball or basketball.

But in recent months, distributors “melting” the networks into the basic package seem to be getting the message: the outdoor category is a lifestyle, not a sports play. It’s hard for folks in the cities to understand that instead of walking into a supermarket to buy meat and fish, there are millions of people who prefer the do-it-yourself version, harvesting their own by fishing, hunting and shooting.

It’s a living for many people in the country, but a way of life for many millions more, some who happen to live in the most urban and suburban markets.

While NBCSN and ESPN still have a presence in the category, as do a number of regional sports networks, the category’s dedicated players include Pursuit Channel and World Fishing Network, with Outdoor Channel (owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which has a 50% stake in WFN) and Sportsman Channel, controlled by InterMedia Partners, leading the pack.

Last year, the owners/operators of Sportsman Channel made an audacious bid to buy their biggest competitor, in hopes of creating an outdoor powerhouse distributors could not ignore. In the end, Stan Kroenke, the Denver billionaire and sports and outdoor enthusiast, scooped up the network, paying $268 million and valuing the asset much higher.

Sportsman Channel CEO president Gavin Harvey and InterMedia Partners managing partner Peter Kern recently sat down with Multichannel News online news editor Mike Reynolds and editor in chief Mark Robichaux to talk about targeting new viewers, changes at the network, and the lure of Sarah Palin. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Were you more surprised or disappointed by the winning bid for Outdoor Channel?

Peter Kern: I was surprised and disappointed. I was disappointed largely because of the hard work we had put in and because it seemed like a good moment to simplify. And I think when a category like ours gets simplified, it gets easier for distributors to get their head around how to play.

Because for a lot of distributors, you asked about distribution and how does it go, a lot of distributors, you’re maybe talking to people that don’t necessarily live the lifestyle, the programming is not relevant to them, they have trouble judging the differences and the nuances. And it’s fair enough, that’s not what they’re into. It’s easier for them to judge movie channels or entertainment channels or sports channels.

But money talks and they wanted it more and at a price we were not willing to pay.

The reason that we got them to the table last year — or even earlier — was because they had discounted our likelihood of being a viable competitor. And we kept creeping up and creeping up and … finally they had to accept that this isn’t going the right way and we need to give in.

MCN: How many subscribers do you reach today?

Gavin Harvey: We’re about 36 million. We melted in Detroit and Indianapolis and a few other places. That region has green-lighted some local press for us.

MCN: In the last two or three years, do you feel like you’re making momentum in getting your message out?

PK: I think, in general, our trajectory has been quite good over the last several years. We continue to grow. And obviously the deal we were trying to do was in some respects to expedite growth and sensible consolidation in the category. But it didn’t change our strategy, which is that we always believed there should be one broader reach channel in the outdoor lifestyle, the outdoor lifestyle is a big thing.

Tens and tens of millions people in the U.S. own a gun, or hunt or fish. There’s lots of people in this lifestyle. It doesn’t mean they go out every weekend hunting or fishing. You’re hiding in plain sight and you understand and feel a kinship to the lifestyle. That’s all around us.

And so there ought to be one bigger, better highreach vehicle. In our mind it always made sense that there might be a narrower, more die-hard kind of network that allowed the consumer to buy further down in the tiers and get even more of the good stuff that they want.

So had we owned both, that’s how we would have structured it. And since we didn’t, we went back to, “We’re going to build the big one, ’cause we think we’re better equipped to do it in terms of manpower, in terms of our level of investment in programming, in terms of the reach of all of our other media.” We have 23 million readers in just [the Intermedia-owned outdoor magazines], which are all pretty die-hard, but they’re not all watching the channels, otherwise we’d all have higher ratings.

So we’ve got to continue to evolve the genre and grow it and build it and do television 101. That’s why we brought Gavin in, in the first place.

MCN: What are you doing differently?

PK: Traditionally, the channels were pretty rudimentary. It was hunting show after hunting show, or fishing show after fishing show, a couple of guys whispering, stalking a deer — all valuable to the hardcore consumer but not exactly great storytelling, not exactly classic television, not a first act, a second act, a third act.

Now we’re evolving. How do you get to real TV that appeals to not just a hard-core enthusiast who needs to know what gun to pick this weekend to go out hunting, but somebody who likes the lifestyle, once in a while goes and does something, and wants to watch a show about somebody living some part of that lifestyle?

MCN: What is the lifestyle and who are the people you’re trying to reach?

GH: We call it “Red, Wild & Blue.”

PK: Right.

GH: It’s where there’s deeply held values of traditional American values such as patriotism, self-reliance, of outdoors, that love the great outdoors — and family.

Conservation: Some people participate simply in a conservation mode, other people like to hunt, shoot or fish or camp actively. It’s not a niche, it’s a mainstream lifestyle. People organize their vacations around it, they raise their children around it, they budget their discretionary income around it. It’s not a hobby, it’s a whole lifestyle.

So we have dubbed it “Red, Wild & Blue,” because we think it’s where that American spirit and the great outdoors intersects and overlaps.

MCN: Why do you think the operators haven’t gotten that message?

PK: I don’t think they don’t get it. I think there’s inherently a lot of friction in the system. It’s hard to get any channel distributed; it’s hard to get any channel into more homes; it’s hard to get anybody pay for more stuff .

It’s a question of us continuing to make the case and eventually, they see the light. And it’s taken us some time and we have made continuing progress and this year, we’ll make more. I think that is testament to people seeing that there is value there, that this is really good programming at a really efficient price that they can provide to the consumers well.

MCN: You mention you wanted to be fully distributed. What does that mean?

GH: I think the model of this category is different. These channels economically work a little differently than traditional entertainment networks and because you have a lot of endemic advertisers and a unique ability to do sponsored programming and other things. So it’s a different model.

I think we’d be very happy if this channel got to 50 million subs. I think that would be a very robust place to be. We’d be the leader in the space, clearly.

MCN: What shows hold the most promise for the coming year?

GH: Obviously, Amazing America With Sarah Palin. It’s an anthology of stories about the lifestyle. And you’ll see in the show that it’s hunting, shooting and fishing and it’s craftsmanship in the category. So it’s a broadly themed show that will tell a lot of different stories about this “Red, Wild & Blue” lifestyle.

MCN: Any politics in there?

GH: No. This is one of the reasons why the governor wanted to do it. She said over and over, “I get to do something that’s not about me. It’s about a subject I love, it’s about people I love and it’s a lifestyle I love.”

And again, it is an outdoor lifestyle television defining moment, in the same way when we launched Cam & Company. Nobody had ever done a stripped, live, news/talk show in this category before. We saw an opportunity that nobody was doing with a live show, news/talk in a very high-intensity category, Second Amendment, and partnership with the [National Rifl e Association], we took advantage of that.

PK: We are trying to cast a wider net to bring more people that have affinity for the lifestyle into the fold. We never will abandon our core because, that’s what we’re built on. … We’re not trying to be some general thing. But we do want to cast a wider net and you can’t fish for the same fish off the same pier every year. You’ll just catch less fish.

GH: The bedrock of our network is the category of shows that are coming from our own internal group, and frankly, these are the authorities. They’ve been the longest running shows in the category from In Fisherman, Guns & Ammo, Petersen's Hunting. And if I had to pick out one more, I would say what’s happening with Steven Rinella and Meat Eater is very exciting.

MCN: What about ratings? You recently became rated by Nielsen, correct?

GH: Yes, we’re one of the smallest English-language network that’s Nielsen-rated … We have seen, if you go quarter-to-date vs. quarter-to-date last year, you take a broad stroke at it, prime key demos like men 25-to-54, fantastic. We are up 40% over last year. You look at men, 18 to 49, I think we’re something like 60% higher than last year in coverage-area ratings.

And so with this broader lifestyle, Peter gave us the green light to go out and to come up with the right opportunity that was going to make a difference.

MCN: Like what?

GH: The strategy with the Iditarod [sled-dog race] is a smart partnership, I think. The Iditarod guys are doing the race. They do the race on their Iditarod.com Insider [website], and you can keep up with the race there. Dallas Seavy won. It was an incredibly dramatic finish, where he came from behind the last day and he just put the pedal to the metal. He actually won by a couple of minutes. They are calling it a finish for the ages.

And now it shifts to us. We’ll do Iditarod Unleashed and that starts soon. And we’ll have our two weeks of … across two weekends and throughout the week of 14 hours or so of specials, in depth about this year, about the mushers, about the conditions, etcetera around the life inside the Iditarod.

PK: We’ve got Saving Private K-9, about rehabilitating war dogs and dogs helping to rehabilitate military men and so forth.

We have tentpole events. Military people share these values. There’s a lot of these people with a shared value set. So Veteran’s Day, 4th of July, we’re going to have tentpole events and special guests hosting the day.

GH: Last year, Memorial Day, we initiated a Twitter dedication so that people could tweet or send dedications in that we would crawl all day.

Then, for the Fourth of July, we did a deal with the Department of Defense where they supplied video of soldiers who were stationed somewhere god-awful, who just wanted to say “Hi, I’m OK.” It was awesome.

Aporkalypse, our big pig stunt last year, that was the No. 15 show of all shows in cable in the time slot for the demo.

MCN: What about health of this category?

PK: Well, I think if you look at the underpinnings of the endemic side you’d say gun sales and gun-related sales are as strong as they’ve ever been. The fishing sports and related businesses — boats, etc. — had a long and painful recession that they’re finally coming out of, so there’s finally good news on that horizon.

So all the underpinnings are very strong. Then you have participation is up, whether that’s fishing, hunting or shooting.

GH: New people in the category is one of the most important things. That’s why it’s important to us to make sure we’re reaching those younger demos.

MCN: What’s your ratio of endemic to traditional advertisers, and has that changed recently?

GH: I think it’s probably around 80%. We’re proud of the growth in the endemic categories, particularly retailers … Cabela’s was always there, Bass Pro is there now, Dick’s is there, there’s a number of retailers. Purina. The truck category, Ford, Ram, Chevy — very strong.

PK: The not-so-little secret is that the publishing side, and the digital side too, but the publishing side has always garnered more raw dollars than either channel. So when you put our channel with the publishing side … you can buy the magazine, the digital, the television, etc. It’s really the classic one-stop-shop we’ve all talked about and said you could do, but it’s never worked in most categories. In this category, it really works because these guys, if they’re launching a new product, optics, a gun, whatever, they want to be everywhere.

Again, spurred by when we were doing the merger and we were gonna smash everything together, we had gone much further in the last year of smashing our own stuff together and really putting the teams in the most integrated position to sell across everything.

GH: So again, part of the integration with the magazine, with the publishing and digital side, is that we’re starting to look at, “OK, what is the leadership in this category for mobile apps, for social, media and activation and etc.” We’ve got between us more than 2 million Facebook likes right now. So again, we’re figuring out what do you do with that kind of tonnage, that kind of engagement across the board.

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