Outdoor’s New Leader of the Pack

Sports-TV Vet Jim Liberatore Tasked with Growth Mandate

After a contentious battle with InterMedia Partners, parent of the rival Sportsman Channel, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment emerged as the successful bidder for hunting-and-fishing lifestyle network Outdoor Channel, agreeing to pay $267 million in May. About a month after sealing the deal, Kroenke hired longtime cable sports-network executive Jim Liberatore as its head, charging him with growing the channel beyond its 40 million-home footprint. Liberatore has been involved in startups — he helped launch regional sports network SportsTime Ohio — and in relaunches, as a key figure in the transformation of Speedvision to Speed Channel in 2002. Shortly after getting the job in June, he spoke with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell.

MCN: What made you decide to take this job? It’s a bit of a departure from what you’ve done before.

Jim Liberatore: In a way, because of my experience at Speed Channel, this is almost the exact same situation. Remember, there, it was taking Speedvision, moving it, rebranding it, reprogramming it; we added NASCAR — it was a lot more work. This isn’t that much work, but it is going to involve taking a fresh look at the network and eventually we will likely be moving the network at some point. It is kind of similar in that way and in the passion of the car guy, the race guy, the guy who races his own car and works on his own car; his car is a lifestyle. [That] is very similar to the hunter or the fi sherman where it’s a passion, it’s a lifestyle, it’s not really something that they root for or are interested in; it’s their life.

I was interested, too, because I have known [Kroenke Sports & Entertainment CEO] Jim Martin for a long, long time and I think the opportunity to work with him was very attractive, too.

MCN: What are your top priorities?

JL: I think the network has done a great job of being a place where the enthusiasts like the programming. One thing I really want to do is make this the place where they love the network, where they say, “This is my network, they speak to me, they understand me.” Not just with the programming, but with the marketing, the interstitials, the way we speak to them — really transcending “the network I like” to “my network,” where they really have ownership because we’re speaking so directly to their lifestyle. That’s the one thing I think is a big step in growing the network. To me, it’s kind of a get-one, get-all type of approach; where [if] we can really connect with our viewers, that’s really going to bode well for us in the affiliate world and the ad-sales world.

The less utopian answer to your question is, we really need to increase our subscribers. We need to do what we can to translate our value to those people who are making decisions about migrating us to more highly distributed platforms.

MCN: Over the longer term, do you expect to be fully distributed, or is this the type of network that tops out at 70 million homes?

JL: To be honest, I think that full distribution would be a really lofty goal unless we at some point are really making some significant investments in programming that crosses over; [programming] that still is true to our core guy, but invites other people to come. If we don’t, I don’t expect to be in more [homes] than that because I want to be. We would have to earn that.

I’m not going to say it’s easy to be true to your core at the same time you are inviting other people in. In this domain, we really need to be very true to our base, but at some point as we grow be more relevant but still true. That’s the key. It’s difficult, but we can get there.

MCN: The space has always had a huge amount of potential but hasn’t quite lived up to that yet. How do you get outdoor enthusiasts back on their couch?

JL: In some ways, you look at something like soccer, where people have always argued, “Oh my gosh, there are 30 million kids playing soccer every Saturday morning,” but it just doesn’t translate to television. The other problem is you have other, bigger networks picking off shows that they have the larger platform to brand and market them.

The problem is none of these [outdoors] networks have ever reached high enough penetration to really speak to the people who may be interested in their genre and outside. You attract your core always, but to get to that next level you really need to start speaking to other people. When you’re in 30 and 40 million homes, people are not going to stumble across you, necessarily, and love what they’re seeing. You need to get to a larger platform. I think when we can get to 50 [million] to 55 million homes, if we can’t springboard that into something more, then that’s going to be on us.

MCN: Bigger distributors are starting to push back against programming fees and some have decided to single out independent networks as candidates for being dropped. Does that make it a tougher sell for you?

JL: The hardest part for us is being independent. That’s the struggle. As an independent, it’s very difficult, and we are the easy ones to pick on. But it’s up to us to change that.

MCN: There seems to have been a movement toward more lifestyle-type programming. Has Kroenke made any commitment to give you the resources to do that?

JL: What we are going to do is really focus on our core and make sure they understand that we understand them and we’re going to program to them. If you start to try to appeal to all people, then you’re kind of losing what you were built for. We’re not going to apologize for what we’re for, what we’re about and who we’re reaching. We’re going to try to really engage them. Kroenke will give us the resources we need to do what we need when we’re ready to do it.

MCN: What about Outdoor Channel programming now?

JL: You need to justify every cent that is being spent. And I have been telling these guys our resources are not going to go down. In fact, they could go up if we can justify what we’re doing and that every expense either is part of keeping the network on the air or is only separated by real measurable growth by one or two degrees of separation.

MCN: You talked about culture change, but what do you mean by that?

JL: Because of what I talked about, really diving deeply into the budget; really looking at how you’re using your money, how are we spending our resources, what do we need, what do we want. There will be some hard decisions to be made. There are going to be some cuts in certain departments that not everybody is going to necessarily agree on. But if we agree that we need to reallocate revenue to grow, then everybody should be on board with that. Things had started to stall a bit. And I’m convinced that if management hadn’t changed, the guys that were here would probably have to do the same thing.