Outdoor Life Network, which launched in the U.S. in June 1996, faces the problem all new American cable networks wrestle with – distribution. While available in over 20 million analog and digital cable homes, a credible number for any three-year-old channel, and adding a projected five million homes a year, OLN still has a quite a hike before finding itself on an even playing field with the big boys of U.S. cable.
Not that the fledgling Stamford, Connecticut-based network needs to be on a playing field at all. It’s one sports network that strays from arenas, grid irons and fields, in exchange for waves, slopes and trails. The channel’s aim is to be the leading source of entertainment and information in the outdoor adventure category, which includes skiing, water sports, cycling and hiking, or as they like to put it, anything that doesn’t involve balls or sticks. It’s core demographic is adults 18-49, skewing slightly male.
OLN may never reach the lofty carriage numbers of an ESPN, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. It is an example of one of the new breed of special interest niche services that has the potential of delivering a smaller, but targeted demographic to advertisers.
Unlike many other new channels, it (and its sister network Speedvision) is not the offspring of an established network brand, which gives the channel the added challenge of establishing a brand image with cable systems, consumers and advertisers. Being owned jointly by msos Cox Communications, Comcast Corporations, FOX/Liberty Networks and MediaOne has provided the channel with a secure base of subscribers and immediate credibility in the cable and advertising communities. But its programming must still win over audiences.
Outdoor series make up a minor part of the overall programming mix on channels such as ESPN, TBS and The Nashville Network, and most air in off hours. oln brings these programs into primetime on a regularly scheduled basis.
OLN strips its programming vertically. Each night of primetime is devoted to a specific type of activity (Mondays: ocean and water sports; Tuesdays: conservation and wildlife; Wednesdays and Thursdays: adventure sports and alpine or cycling; Fridays: hunting and fishing; Sundays: hiking and biking; Saturdays, a mix). ‘We are trying to create certain nights to be appointment television for special interest viewers,’ says Peter Englehart, senior vice president, programming and production, OLN. ‘It’s a pledge to the viewer to know where to find us on a very consistent basis, especially because the network is not currently listed in all of the TV guides and Sunday supplements.’
Englehart classifies OLN programming as about 50% magazine and instructional/how-to, 30% straight documentary (nature, adventure and expedition) and 20% event/competition coverage (such as World Cup skiing). It does not air any news or dramatic programming. OLN founder and CEO Roger Werner says the channel airs about 1,100 hours of first-run U.S. programming – 55% acquired, 45% commissioned.
OLN maintains a very small in-house production staff, preferring to make and develop programming with a pool of independent producers. ‘We tend to design programs in-house and then have them built to our specs by independent producers, or simply go out and solicit ideas from independent producers,’ Werner says.
In terms of economics, this production model becomes an affordable and efficient way to tap into resources from around the world. ‘We don’t have to invest in a lot of technology and editing equipment that may be outdated in a couple of years,’ Englehart says. ‘On the other hand, because of the advent of digital and non-linear editing, indie producers and suppliers can now live in Red Lodge, Montana and buy a camera and an editing system, live a great lifestyle and continue to deliver us programming.’
Englehart likens OLN’s program pipeline to the Japanese automobile industry’s model of just-in-time inventory. ‘It makes no sense having 50-something producers on staff when, if they can live out in the field, it saves travel costs,’ he says. ‘As long as they can submit their shows, pass quality control and hit our assembly line [the broadcast schedule] at the right time, then we’re happy.’
Budgets for original productions range in the five figures for instructional and magazine shows, to the six figures for long-form or multi-week documentaries. Englehart wouldn’t disclose license fees for acquired product.
Among the production companies with whom OLN works with are Aspen, Colorado-based American Adventure Productions (Adventure Quest and Sportsman’s Journal); L.A.-based Act Now (the environmental series Thin Green Line); Ketcham, Idaho-based Chrisman Films (various environmental and adventure programming); and Boulder, Colorado-based Warren Miller Entertainment (ski documentaries).
OLN has formed partnerships with a variety of outdoor publications and organizations to create programming for the network, including The U.S. Forest Service, Field & Stream, Outside Magazine, Ski Magazine, Surfer Magazine, Bike Magazine and Canoe & Kayak. Englehart says the benefit that comes from these partnerships is three-fold: it brings brand association, puts a stamp of credibility and authority on the program, and provides promotional value – spots-for-pages trade-off for cross promotion between the magazine and network. (For more information on masthead programming, see page 26.)
A website (www.GreatOutdoors.com) offers information on such things as outdoor destinations, weather forecasts, and equipment ratings for everyone from novice to expert. Because Outdoor Life Network is a start-up and still has that new channel smell, it has been an active licensor and acquirer of programming. The most important thing for producers to know before approaching the network is that the focus of its shows is geared toward a targeted audience of outdoor enthusiasts, not a broad-based audience. ‘The presentations have to be genuine and credible, or they won’t provide value to OLN’s viewers,’ Englehart says.
Werner says that the channel will continue to invest more in documentary programming as OLN’s subscriber count rises. He projects that the company will reach profitability within 18 months.