The puck dropped last week as Outdoor Life Network's National Hockey League telecast deal began, but President Gavin Harvey chooses an aviation metaphor to explain the network's recent changes.
“It's kind of like flying this plane, and overhauling it and stripping it down to the sheet metal while it's flying,” says Harvey. “You're going to lose some viewers along the way, but it's a crucial thing to do. We hope we can do enough to continue to appeal to the hardcore [outdoor] enthusiast while doing things to attract a mainstream audience.”
While the Outdoor Channel and the tiny Sportsman Channel stick to the hunting and fishing shows that made them, Comcast's OLN is trying to go wide, and, some say, it is aiming at ESPN by trying to snare more team sports. After growing from zero to more than 64 million homes in 10 years, the Connecticut-based network is looking for the next step.
“I've been in the business almost 20 years, and right now it seems so competitive on all levels,” says Harvey. “The expectations that viewers have, and advertisers, distributors … You can either be a niche network that's highly branded with a deeply singular, passionate audience, or be something broader-based that appeals to a lot of people. I worry about what happens to those in the middle.”
But other cable outlets that think the great outdoors is really great aren't following OLN's lead. The Outdoor Channel is in 25.6 million cable and DBS homes, not even half as big as OLN. “That means we still have a lot of upside, but we're a good enough size that we're profitable,” says Outdoor Channel's CEO Andy Dale, from the channel's offices near San Diego. The network is sticking close to field sports, especially on the standard-definition channel. And Dale's not complaining about competing with OLN and its Comcast parent, which makes carriage much easier for OLN.
“We wish we had more [carriage] with Comcast, but that applies to all the MSOs,” Dale says. “Comcast does carry us [in some markets], and I think they know the difference between us and the network they own. In many places, we reside on the channel lineup adjacent to OLN, and I think we serve in many ways two different ends of the outdoor marketplace—and overlap in the middle.”
The third competitor in the category is the two-year-old Sportsman Channel, which, says President C. Michael Cooley, “is dedicated exclusively to hunting and fishing programming, continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no informational programming, no variety programming, no non-related programming.”
The Sportsman Channel model is decidedly different from the other two. Producers pay for airtime, then sell five minutes of ads every half hour; Sportsman keeps two minutes, which in some cases is passed along to operators in return for carriage. The network is not measured by Nielsen, but claims distribution of 13 million households through a combination of cable and broadcast. Its 70 broadcast outlets include a few that carry the network round-the-clock, while most offer weekly programming blocks.
None of the networks have many viewers. Last week OLN, the giant in the adventure-TV business, said its third-quarter ratings—a whopping. 0.24—were the highest in its history and up 41% from a year ago. OLN said that in the third quarter, it averaged 205,655 viewers, up 48% from a year ago. All the key male demos were up, too.
But obviously, it's not a network that is bumping heads with ESPN yet. “I think we've got a great, highly defined brand,” Harvey says, “but we need something like a major sport to really elevate us, really put us on everyone's radar, as distributors are making decisions about what they're going to continue to carry, which networks are most valuable to them, which ones are going to help them with their HD business or their VOD business.”
So OLN “tweaked” its coverage of the Tour de France—before hockey, its biggest draw—and bull riding.
Segments explaining, for example, basic Tour rules may annoy hardcore cycling fans but are important to attracting and retaining a wider audience. “We may lose some, but we'll gain more,” Harvey says.
Then there are the programming additions. OLN is the exclusive syndicated home of CBS' reality-adventure hit Survivor and has added The America's Cup competition to its lineup.
But the network still features outdoor shows such as The Best and Worst of Tred Barta and a Big Game Thursday programming block. That's big game as in elk.
“What we've tried to do is bring sort of a more-modern approach to hunting and fishing,” says Greg Trager, OLN director, field-sports programming and production. “The music's a little bit hotter, there are more  cuts, it's a quicker pace, it's just the style of TV you see across the board, and what we're trying to do is bring that into the field-sports arena.”
But it's possible the combination of all those programming styles won't work. “There's a significant upside potential for OLN with significant challenges for the NHL,” says John Rash, senior VP/director of broadcast operations for Campbell Mithun. It could make OLN more popular—or turn off the viewers it does have. And NHL fans might not get OLN, or even know it exists.
Besides, Rash says, “the NHL is already more a collection of regional interests than a sport with a transcendent national fan interest. Conversely, OLN is often an unfocused panorama of programming that at times appeals to fans of silent sports like cycling and at times to some sportsmen in terms of hunting and fishing. This brings in a whole new dynamic, but eventually it will be necessary to focus the network on one of the directions.”
Another expert sees OLN's angle. “I think a lot of cable networks—because the environment is so cluttered—have to go beyond what their core audience is to get casual viewers,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP/director of research for Horizon Media. “Networks are saying, 'Where can we rise above the noise of the cable landscape?'”
Putting Survivor reruns on and getting the rights to 58 regular-season NHL games “doesn't add huge household numbers,” Adgate says, but both have loyal audiences that will expand OLN's following. That's just in time, because OLN may lose part of its largest annual ratings spike—with Lance Armstrong retiring from the Tour de France, OLN is losing its biggest draw.
“They're like CNN; they get a big bump when the Berlin Wall comes down. They did it with the Tour, but if you don't have a guy like Lance Armstrong competing, I don't know what your numbers are going to be,'' says Adgate.
The other outdoor networks don't have problems like that, and if they're true to their word, they've gone fishing or hunting and are going to stay out there.
Outdoor Channel has even launched a high-definition channel, and Dale says it offers VOD product.
The Sportsman Channel, based in Wisconsin, just took a big step. It signed a deal with Comcast which allows it to troll for carriage with Comcast operators—the last of the big five operators to sign on. Strangely, permissions to shop cable operators are called “fishing rights” in the cable business.
“This is kind of a momentous moment in time for us,” says Cooley. “The signing and completion of the Comcast deal is our final validation as a network.”