Last May, Stan Kroenke swooped in like a SWAT team and took the prize that Sportsman Channel had claimed as its own: the Outdoor Channel. With a bold bid of $268 million, the real estate billionaire and outdoor enthusiast added Outdoor to his growing list of sports assets -- either as owner or majority stakeholder -- under Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which includes Arsenal F.C. of the Barclays Premier League, the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association, the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League, the St. Louis Rams of the National Football League and the World Fishing Network, among others.”
A year later, the Outdoor Channel has big plans to sharpen its programming and cut through the sports tiers into cable operators’ main packages. The goal, said Jim Liberatore, network president and CEO, is to stay true to the core audience but widen the network’s appeal as a lifestyle destination to draw in the burgeoning audience of outdoor enthusiasts. Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux and news editor Mike Reynolds spoke to Liberatore and Matt Hutchings, executive vice president and COO of Kroenke Sports, about bagging a bigger audience. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: You have said you don’t view Sportsman Channel as your competition. Can you explain?
Matt Hutchings: I would flip that around. It’s not that we don’t view Sportsman Channel as our competition; we view everybody as our competition. I view A&E as our competition when I look at where we are and where we’re going, and History Channel and Discovery Channel. Those are our competition and that’s who we’re focusing on as we move forward.
And so that’s really how I look at it, that our competition is any time a person sits down and is trying to run those five to seven networks through their head that they check out first — if we’re not on that list, then that’s our competition. That’s sort of how I view this.
MCN: Are you making strides toward getting out of sports tiers? How is that effort going?
Jim Liberatore: What I have learned in the year that I’ve been here is that if we’re on those tiers and are not working our way out, quite frankly, a lot of that falls to us in not educating the distributors on who and what we are.
And I think the easiest thing for these busy people at the satellite and cable companies is to just lump us into a category, and it’s really incumbent on us to explain to them why we deserve broader distribution. And that’s why we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money on research in the last year, and we have spent a lot of time visiting a lot of different people.
MCN: Is there a light bulb going off ? Do cable operators understand?
JL: There is. We went through the research, and the research tells them, first of all, 20% of our audience right now is female, 25% of our programming is reality-based type of shows and 9% of our programming is occupational type of programming.
So then, we start laying out the fact that there are more outdoor enthusiasts than golfers and tennis players combined. Then we get into specific market-by-market details, depending on who we’re talking to. And I think a lot of eyes are opened.
The research is working, and what we’re hoping is that in the next six months the fruit of that is going to be borne as we continue to grow.
MCN: The current count is 39 million subscribers?
JL: Yes. I personally round to 40 but yes, officially 39 [million] and change. Yes.
MCN: How do you convince distributors that you guys need a broader base? What’s the goal over the next few years — 50 million?
JL: Ultimately, we wanted to be in all of the homes. When you have a space as big as the outdoors, literally that means that almost every person in this nation should have something on our network that they’re going to be interested in at some point, you know? So, ultimately, I don’t see why this can’t be distributed like A&E or any of those other channels. I don’t want to throw a number out there, but it should be significant, measurable and impressive growth over the next few years. That would be the way I would categorize it.
MCN: Matt, what is the long-range strategy for this network now that you’ve got a flag in it and you’ve got the World Fishing Network? A lot of people were speculating we were going to start seeing Denver Nuggets games on the network, all sorts of wild theories.
MH: We have always liked this channel. We felt it was a leader in the space, and so from a media play, we looked at it as a good investment and a good opportunity. And we thought that [it] could match in and fit nicely in what we were doing.
Then you have to look at the personal play. Mr. Kroenke is, first and foremost, a staunch conservationist, loves the land and has several holdings within ranches across North America. But I mean, he loves the land, he loves the outdoors, and I think that, from a personal perspective, this channel fit nicely into that.
And then you go down to the management group, and I’ve put myself in the category, but there are several of us within the senior management group that walk the walk and talk the talk. I grew up hunting and fishing; I still hunt and fish today with my kids.
You take that and look into the future. I think, as an organization, Kroenke Sports and Mr. Kroenke are in for the long haul. We look at long-term opportunities, don’t really like to sell things, and really like to invest and build businesses up and help them reach their potential.
We believe we can run it very efficiently and provide some great resources to help it reach its potential. We believe it has some significant growth and we’re gonna do our part to support Jim and his team and be in there.
I would just like to add, there’s over 78 million outdoor enthusiasts, including (38 million hunters and anglers) — these are great stats that I love to throw out — hunters and anglers in the U.S. I mean, that’s significant.
And then you look at, from a pure economic perspective, I think it’s nearly $150 billion in total expenditures in the outdoor space when you start looking at some of those demographics. From a business component, that also gets us very excited about what the potential is.
MCN: What are the hottest shows on the air right now?
JL: We have a show right now called Bottom Feeders, which is the story of these guys in Minnesota who fish for carp and these other kind of nasty fish but they’re really interesting, [they] work hard. And what we’ve done over the last year is switch the focus from the fishing to the characters.
Wardens, a show about Montana wardens, same deal — focusing more on the characters.
Those two shows, in this last year, have improved ratings; the network’s ratings have gone up about 10%. So they have been very popular shows.
[Country music singers] Luke Bryan [and] Jason Aldean, as well as [Duck Dynasty star] Willie Robertson [are] on our air. [Pro wrestler] Shawn Michaels is on our air. [Actor] Joe Mantegna [CBS’s Criminal Minds] is on our air.
But the formula we are trying to make work is, find guys who are maybe unknown but what they do is fascinating and entertaining.
We are gonna be airing a show starting in July called Jim Shockey’s Uncharted; [he’s] the most prolific outdoorsman in the country. We’re going into Papua, New Guinea, where there are tribes who have not seen anybody from the west in dozens of years; to Pakistan, where he’ll be in embedded with [a local] tribe.
We want to create stars that resonate with everybody who has any fascination and wants to be entertained.
MCN: What is working now with the audience?
JL:Joe Mantegna’s Gun Stories is doing well. Quite frankly, if we had a larger megaphone, I feel these shows are as good as or better than a lot of programming that’s on A&E, Discovery and History Channel. These are really quality, quality shows. Unfortunately, the one thing that the network [had] not done up until the new ownership is any research or promotion of their programs. So one thing we’re focusing on again is research and promotion and off -air promotion.
The other thing I will tell you is, we have looked at a made-for-TV movie on the outdoor space. These are the types of directions we know that we need to go.
Now remember, our endemic hunting and fishing is still critical to our network. We’re not abandoning that by any means. But people don’t watch networks, they watch shows. So we need to have really compelling, entertaining shows that people will come to our network for even if it’s once or twice a week. That’s how we all watch TV, quite frankly. But that gives you an idea of the types of things we’re working on.
And what we’re telling, quite frankly, a lot of our producers is, you need to step it up. We’re gonna get better. We’re gonna have more homes. Our production quality is going to continue to increase — even though I think a lot of our shows are extremely wellproduced.
MCN: How does the World Fishing Network fit into your overall strategy?
MH: Obviously the Outdoor Channel has angling components to it, so we thought there could be some good opportunities to piggyback on research and content.
We look at them as separate entities: They complement each other, but we feel that the World Fishing Network has a very specific audience and focus, and we want to stay with that in terms of the angling world.
MCN: How many subscribers for World Fishing Network at the moment?
MH: It’s not as big as Outdoor Channel.
MCN: What sets you apart from the competition in your category?
JL: If you take the outdoor space and list all of the programs and their ratings, in their time slots, the top 137 shows are on Outdoor Channel. This is fourth quarter of 2013.
You could go through the statistics, and I think we are not at all — and I mean this genuinely — not concerned; [we] don’t focus on them. So we are really happy with where we are in this space.
MCN: So operators are getting the message that this category is a lifestyle?
JL: Yeah, I would say that I am extremely confident that it’s getting through. I try to manage my expectations and sometimes don’t do a great job, but I am confident that it’s getting through. It will be a continual progression of yards as opposed to inches or feet, I think.
But the model in my mind is, once we get into the 50 million-plus range, then when we really start having or creating compelling programming, that’s where the momentum starts to shift to demand, and that’s why I think we’re in pretty good shape. So I’m feeling good about the general understanding of what this network currently is as opposed to the perception of what this network is going to be.
MCN: Are you attracting nonendemic advertisers?
JL: Dairy Queen, Jack Links, Geico, Allstate, Miller. We are getting more and more of the non-endemics because of the lifestyle, the passion. It’s a battle — there is absolutely no question about that — but we’re having success. And the big thing is Kroenke Sports. I had a meeting with them in August and laid out multiple strategies for getting where we wanna go, which included investment after he bought the network. And I joked, “Boy, he just spent hundreds of millions of dollars, now I’m saying we need more money to grow this,” and I was told yes, yes and yes. For anybody in my position, that’s the best asset you can possibly have.