Fuel TV Retools To Lure Ratings, Dollars

News Corp.’s action sports network seeks young male viewers, Nielsen numbers and ad revenue

Fuel TV IS upping the octane of its programming in hopes that Nielsen will take notice.

The 30 million-subscriber network catering to young men interested in action sports was nearly sold by News Corp. a year ago. Now, as part of David Hill’s Fox Sports Media Group, Fuel is looking to grow. It canceled 10 programs, using the money to develop and acquire better shows, some from its Fox siblings. New programs, like a weekly fight night and live championship motocross racing, will be rolling out through the summer, backed by a big promotional push. The network also just signed a deal licensing 40 hours of programming this year from Red Bull Media House North America. The Red Bull programming includes competitions and specials.

Fuel has signed up for Nielsen ratings starting in April and is betting that the numbers will be attractive to advertisers, says CJ Olivares, Fuel TV general manager.

Without ratings and with spotty distribution, selling ads has been difficult for Fuel, according to Derek Baine, analyst at SNL Kagan, who pegs Fuel’s 2010 ad sales at $21.5 million, compared with healthy distribution revenue of $52.1 million. Baine estimates that Fuel increased programming spending by 25% in 2010.

“Any time you have a network with 30 million subs doing this little in ad revenue, you really do want to pay attention to it because the potential is very large over the long run,” Baine says. “So if they don’t invest heavily in programming and get Nielsen-rated, they are in danger of losing the subs they already have.”

As part of its tune-up, Fuel has expanded its target audience. “We positioned ourselves as a 12-to-24 male audience,” says Olivares. “What some of the demonstration data and some independent research supported was that we were already attracting a pretty strong 18-to-34, so we’ve since expanded our target up to 34.”

Last year, the network adopted a new slogan and mindset: Risk Is the Only Rule. And “risk” is the way Fuel differentiates itself from the other sports and entertainment networks aimed at young men.

“There’s this element of risk in the activities that we are showcasing,” says Olivares. “In our world, if you miss pulling a back flip on a motorcycle, or you miss making the drop on a 50-foot wave at Mavericks in Northern California, the stakes are real and the consequences can be grave. We apply that risk mantra to all the things we do as we expand out.”

Oliveras sees MTV, Comedy Central, Adult Swim, G4 and Spike as the network’s main competition for young male viewers.

Neal Tiles, president of G4, says young men “are actually the easiest demographic to find because they consume so much media. It’s just that they’re the hardest to engage.” G4 has also broadened its target audience, but usually what interests 12-to-24 males is very different from what 35-to-49 guys want. “But if you can find the sweet spot of what is interesting to all of them, I think you get paid handsomely by Madison Avenue,” Tiles says.

That sweet spot includes the hightech geek-culture world that Fuel appears to be ignoring, Tiles says, adding that a SpikeTV/Jackass approach to men will miss the mark: “We believe that guys are much more dimensional than that.”

Fuel has been adding new shows to its lineup since late last year. It shares two late-night shows, Cubed and College Experiment, with FoxSports.com’s “Lunch With Benefi ts” bloc.

In what the network calls “Dude Prime,” Fuel has revamped its 8 p.m. anchor show The Daily Habit, increasing its emphasis on comedy and male-culture relevance. Other new primetime shows include The Moto, an inside look at racers preparing for grueling motocross racing that launched last week; and Ellismania, featuring Jason Ellis, a popular host on SiriusXM’s action sports and music channel, who stages unusual forms of fighting on a show launching in April. This month, Fuel will air Stealth Rider, a show about stuntmen it acquired from Speed, another Fox Sports network.

The network hopes to launch a Friday fight night, featuring a combination of mixed martial arts and younger-skewing boxing.

On weekends over the summer, Fuel will try its hand at live events, with 12 weeks of the AMA Lucas Oil Motocross Championship Series. Fuel will air each event’s early races, then toss to either Speed or NBC, which air the later races.

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