Out of the Woods


For fans of the great outdoors, there has never been a better time to stay inside — and watch television. More networks are offering more hours of original content aimed at outdoor sports enthusiasts, as programmers boast about improved storytelling techniques and production values with a special emphasis on high-definition.

In terms of household reach, the biggest players are clearly ESPN2’s ESPN Outdoors and below that Versus’ Versus Country, but those are both part-time players, filling programming blocks in a broader network. The smallest competitors are Pursuit Channel (which just bought Maximum Adventure Network) and World Fishing Network, each of which is carving out niches within the niche. And in the middle are Outdoor Channel, the most established, and The Sportsman Channel, which has created the most buzz in the last 18 months with an aggressive campaign to transform itself into a top contender.

After Sportsman parent InterMedia Outdoors bought up Primedia’s outdoors magazine holdings, it decided last year to make a major push, shifting all of the programs it once produced for other networks onto the network.

“There are a lot of players that satisfy different parts of the audience, but we are in the process of changing the playing field,” said Sportsman Channel’s new president Willy Burkhardt, contending that only his channel can provide a complete multiplatform performance. (ESPN owns well-branded magazines and has even launched a new one for saltwater fishermen, but it does not have a full-time television lineup.)

“We are launching new series as our older ones migrate over from our competitors. Because of our magazines, we can be faster to identify underserved microniches and have a higher rate of success because we have a pre-existing market and easier branding,” Burkhardt said, pointing to a new show called Handguns that will be spun off of its market-leading magazine.

The moves have produced definitive results: senior vice-president of affiliate relations Mark Kang said the network was in 3 million homes last May but now reaches 16 million and expects to break 20 million by year’s end.

Burkhardt added, “We have the opportunity to become the dominant player.” But he doesn’t see a zero sum game, saying $70 billion is spent annually on hunting, fishing and shooting, “making it more than sufficient in size and scope” to support Sportsman and Outdoor. He doesn’t even view the part-timers, especially ESPN, as a rival. “They have very fine programming but if the viewer wants more, they’re not going to find it on ESPN.”

Tom Hornish, Outdoor Channel’s chief operating officer, said ESPN or Versus’ broad reach can draw in casual viewers and “then they might seek out more” — though, of course, he believes they’d come to Outdoor. But Greg Trager, ESPN Outdoors’ senior director of programming and acquisitions, insists, “We’re doing the same programming and looking for the same advertising, so they’re competing with us; but we have the ESPN brand and reach a much broader audience.”

To grow while staying loyal to the “core of hunting, fishing and shooting,” Hornish said Outdoor has broadened its appeal toward a younger audience. While it’s a balancing act to make sure not to alienate older viewers, Hornish believes it’s doable as long as you “don’t go too far afield.” (He likens it to the challenge of shows that must talk about products without sounding like infomercials.)

Jeff Macaluso, director of field sports for Versus — formerly Outdoor Life Network — agreed: “You can have quick cuts, edgy music and younger talent on some shows, but you don’t want it to become cookie cutter.”

There are many similar shows within the outdoor niche, so breaking through is crucial.

There are also highly targeted networks whose programming focuses on specific areas of interest.

“It’s a big space,” said World Fishing Network CEO Mark Rubinstein, adding that his network, which is in 13.5 million homes, has 45 million fishermen as a potential audience. “They won’t be watching 40 hours per week but they prefer to identify with a channel that is exclusively devoted to their passion, where they can always find something that serves their interest.”

With all the competition in the outdoors space, programmers are looking for ways to make their shows more engaging and distinct.

“You’re always looking for ways to make it fresher than two guys in a boat or two guys whispering in the woods,” Macaluso said, explaining that a host or star’s personality is essential to establishing audience loyalty.

Programmers are also focusing more attention on shows’ narrative. “You want an entertaining show that isn’t just about harvesting an animal, it’s about camaraderie,” Hornish said, pointing out that Outdoor Channel is also adding storylines about conservationism to every program.

“We want to make it look fun,” Macaluso said. “We’re not always as serious as the old hunting shows; this is about bonding, not just going out and freezing in the woods.”

Outdoor programming also looks better than ever — with more shows shooting in high-definition and a greater attention to editing and camera angles.

While the Fuel network’s idea of outdoor sports is a little different — from heli-boarding in Alaska to surf adventures in Indonesia — vice-president of programming Shon Tomlin said it too is focusing more on storytelling and personalities.

“We want our viewers to develop a deeper emotional connection with our programs,” he said.