Ripple Effects Of Merger Hit Versus

Possible changes in wake of Comcast/NBCU could trigger outdoor content shifts at other nets 2/21/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

One of the many expected ripples from the nowcompleted
Comcast/NBC Universal merger is a sea change
at Versus. Industry insiders expect big changes at the sports
network that has its roots in outdoor programming, but is now under
the command of Dick Ebersol and NBC Sports.

“There is no way that outdoors continues to the level it was,” says one
media executive in the outdoor space. “I don’t think Dick Ebersol is going
to want it in primetime...[NBCU has] a
big hockey package, and if they go after
another sports package, are those guys
going to want to share that package with
shows about deer getting hunted?”

Versus has enjoyed solid ratings in its
non-outdoors event coverage. The NHL
All-Star Game, which aired on the network
Jan. 30, averaged 1.5 million viewers,
making it the most-watched All-Star
game in Versus’ history. Last summer,
coverage of the Tour de France averaged
456,000 viewers, down from 2009 but
up 70% from 2008. The network posted
a record $65 million in operating cash
! ow for 2010, according to Bloomberg.

Yet Versus executives are not ready, at
least publicly, to diminish the relevance
of outdoor programming to their brand. “It’s something that’s an important
part of this channel, it’s part of the DNA,” says Jon Miller, president
of programming for NBC Sports and Versus, noting the channel’s earliest
incarnation as Outdoor Life Network. “While I think it’s accurate to say
that we’re going to look to acquire more programming opportunities, that
doesn’t mean all the outdoor sports programs are a casualty of that.”

It’s perhaps indicative of the shift that when ESPN chose to swim out
of the outdoor programming currents last year by divesting nearly all
of its outdoor content, a number of smaller programmers were happy
to net some of the shows. Versus was not among them.

Ebersol this month tapped Mark Lazarus, former Turner Entertainment
Group president, as president of the NBC Sports Cable Group,
which includes Versus, Golf Channel and Comcast’s 11 regional sports
networks. While Lazarus is known to have an affinity for outdoor programming,
his boss isn’t known for it, and as one executive puts it,
“this is Dick Ebersol’s network.”

As industry speculation about a change of course by Versus persists,
programmers at other outdoor networks are looking for more prize catches
to elevate their brands, though most
say their businesses will be largely unaffected
by changes at Versus.

Sportsman Channel CEO Gavin
Harvey says he doesn’t believe outdoor
programming diminishing on
high-profile networks will affect
demand for his content, which is
aimed at highly dedicated and active
hunters and anglers. “The fact
that ESPN has moved out, and we’re
not sure which direction Versus is
going to go as they undergo their
merger and evolution to probably a more mainstream sports network,
all indications for us is all this change is very positive,” Harvey says.

If the right programming became available from a network like Versus,
Harvey says Sportsman would take a look at it. One topic of interest could
be programming about white-tailed deer, an area where both Sportsman
and Versus programmed weeks of shows last year. “We set a challenge for
ourselves to be the leader in white-tail hunting,” Harvey says. “That’s an
area we’re always interested in.”

Outdoor Channel is another lifestyle
network that has been aggressive in
acquiring castoff programming from
larger sports networks. It nabbed Mad- fin Shark, Spanish Fly and Zona! from
ESPN and late last year picked up FishingUniversity from Versus. And hunting
show Under Wild Skies, another
former Versus offering, will make its
debut on Outdoor this quarter.

“A lot of [Versus’] shows are good,
and they would certainly " t on our
channel,” says Tom Hornish, Outdoor
Channel COO.

Mark Rubenstein, World Fishing
Network CEO, says that whatever
Versus chooses to do with outdoor
programming will have little impact on his dedicated 24/7 " shing
channel. “People thought, ‘This is a major shift in television dynamics,’”
Rubenstein says of ESPN’s exit from the outdoor space last year.
“They were never dedicated to it in the first place. No matter what
happens with Versus, it’s the same thing.”

Altitude Sports & Entertainment, a unit of Denver-based Kroenke
Sports Enterprises—which owns the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL
Colorado Avalanche—last month acquired a 50% stake in World Fishing
Network. Rubenstein believes new capital investment in technical and
operational infrastructure will help draw viewers to the network more
than any possible programming implications from changes at Versus.

Outdoor programming executives say that advertisers in the space
have been understandably taking a wait-and-see approach to determine
their future on Versus. “I just think they’re going big,” says one
top-level outdoor programming exec of Comcast/NBCU’s plans for the
network. “They certainly aren’t doing this [merger] to have a midlevel
alternative sports network.” And for competitive outdoors networks
casting their bait for passionate viewers, that’s just fine.