Taking it to the limit

As extreme sports move from the fringe into the mainstream, natural history viewers, travel lovers and reality fans young and old are being drawn into the programming.
November 1, 2009

You could call Spike TV ‘the network for men and the women who love them.’ It would be a fitting slogan for the channel as it accurately describes its strategy to cater to men while, as an added bonus, drawing in a ¼ female audience with its original programming slate.

This slogan also describes the way producers of extreme sports reality programs and programming execs that are looking into this genre for new shows see their potential audience. They’re making the content primarily for men, but if it draws in a female audience as well, it’s gravy.

George Krieger is president of New Jersey-based prodco Apparent Gravity, which specializes in what he calls ‘action sports’ programs and has 400 hours of such programming in its roster. He maintains that currently, the idea of targeting female audiences with extreme sports programming doesn’t make real business sense. ‘I think what happens is you lose your focus,’ says Krieger of the notion of actively attempting to draw in more of a female demo. ‘Advertisers on the non-pay channels [are] looking at this through the eyes of a very male demo and the [other] benefit they get is a very healthy young adult and [sometimes] young female audience.’ So while women do tune in, Krieger sees the primary audience for this genre as ’14 to 34-year-old men and the women who love them.’

Many of those who work with this type of programming agree. And while it’s not news that the audience for sports and, in particular, extreme sports programming is dominated by males, what has changed about the extreme sports audience is its age range. Tim MacMullen, acquisitions manager at the UK-based Extreme Sports Channel and David Malone, executive producer in the Belfast office of UK-prodco Tern Television, say the audience for this type of programming, while still skewing relatively young, is getting older. ‘I think as they have grown up, and as the sports have become a bit more mainstream, the audience has drifted older and now we’re probably looking at a much larger proportion of 30 to 40-year-olds,’ says MacMullen.

Malone recently worked on a project from Tern Belfast for RTE and BBC Northern Ireland that bridges sports and travel, as it follows two friends who journey around the world seeking out strange and often ‘extreme’ sports in different regions, from elephant polo to camel racing. Colin & Graham’s Excellent Adventures follows the sports-loving duo Colin Carroll and Graham Little as they show up to these exotic games and try to convince the judges they are the Irish team, ready to compete. Malone feels the audience for this show is a mix of young and older. ‘Traditionally the audience has been young men, but as young men become a little bit older, nobody ever gets ‘old’ anymore,’ he says. ‘The audience is predominantly male, and it’s people who are happy to participate in sports, be it on the piste or in the armchair.’

MacMullen also feels the audience for his channel has a similar make-up; those who love extreme sports enough to participate in them and the larger portion of the audience – casual viewers who really just want to see something spectacular.

As members of this audience continue to age and procreate, Krieger sees them sharing their love for the genre with their children. During his most recent stop through the Dew Tour, an extreme sporting event sponsored by soft drink Mountain Dew, he noticed its audience contained a lot of parents in their mid-30s walking around with their young children. ‘The kids are skating alongside Mom and Dad or they’ve got their Vans T-shirts on,’ says Krieger. ‘This is the way Mom and Dad grew up and now it’s, ‘We’re going to have some fun and take the kids.”

Paula Hutchinson, director of sales and acquisitions at Toronto-based prodco and distributor re:think Entertainment, also sees an increased interest from teen audiences, reflected in kids’ channels creating slots for more youth-oriented versions of extreme sports programs. She says that since young kids, around 13 to 15-years-old, are watching adult programming, some networks are striving to air those types of programs, but with more age-appropriate content.

Hutchinson points to Cartoon Network’s new live-action strand ‘CN Sports’ and Disney XD as examples of potential destinations for kid-friendly extreme sports programming. When the Cartoon Network launched its new strand in early October of this year it debuted with Apparent Gravity’s program 10 Count, a series that counts down extreme sports-related subjects such as the competitors with the most distinct style or the best mountains for snowboarding, and Re:evolution of Sports, a documentary series that shows how extreme sports athletes made it to where they are today. Disney XD acquired the re:think-distributed series Shreducation last summer for multiple territories and began rolling it out in the U.S. in September. The series follows pro-snowboarder Jesse Fulton as he travels around the world with a team of kids he’s training to compete, and Hutchinson says the audience feedback is strong. ‘We’ve been receiving letters from all over the U.S. [from kids asking], ‘How do I join the team, how do I get involved?” she says.

The series wasn’t always targeted at kids, however. When Shreducation first came to re:think, prodco Riverbank Films had produced 13 episodes for Canadian digital network The Score and it was aimed at an 18 to 35-year-old market. When she started shopping it around, Hutchinson quickly realized the series would do better as a teen program, so it was re-edited accordingly and it’s been strong for the distributor ever since.

While Hutchinson sees a stronger market for sports-based teen reality programs, some feel the adult reality sports market is also only getting stronger. ‘Networks are always looking for something that’s spiky,’ says Tern TV’s Malone. ‘I think what networks are looking for, here certainly, are formats that leap out of the schedule. In a world where we all have hundreds of channels to choose from it’s very difficult to find something that’s distinctive.’

Craig Piligian, president and CEO of Pilgrim Films & Television, is the creator of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter, a competition show which trains and pits men who want to be in the mixed martial arts-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) against each other until one receives a contract with the organization. While he doesn’t think of the UFC as an extreme sport, he does agree that giving its fighters the reality treatment brought it closer to the mainstream. ‘[UFC] was a fringe sport and then when we created a reality show it got noticed,’ says Piligian. ‘People came and the sport blew up.’ As did the show – currently The Ultimate Fighter is the number one program for Spike TV, and in its current deal, it’s slated to remain on the network into 2011.

When asked if the channel would like to see more programming like The Ultimate Fighter, Thomas Grayman, Spike TV’s senior director of brand and consumer research says the channel is constantly looking to expand its footprint in this area. ‘What Spike did a few years ago was take a chance on this thing which was not so mainstream, but because it was driven by action and it had that adrenaline rush and drama, it seemed like the kind of thing that would fit well with our brand and with our audience,’ says Grayman. ‘And it did. So we’re looking to duplicate that kind of success.’

Grayman says the type of people who enjoy programs such as The Ultimate Fighter and Spike’s coverage of freestyle motocross and Australian Rugby, are always looking for something new or fresh in whatever genre – or network – they’re watching. ‘That’s why you see them latching on to some of these newer sports that are not as established as some of the better-known ones,’ he says.

And when it comes specifically to reality programming that offers a look into the lives of these athletes, Extreme Sports Channel’s MacMullen says the shows have to be honest. ‘Our audience can spot fakers and contrived scenes easily,’ he says. ‘I’ve screened a couple of series [where] you felt it was very much going for a comedic sort of drama and you didn’t feel like it was real, which I don’t think would work for us.’

While MacMullen is actively looking for more character-driven reality series for his channel, non-sports channels such as MTV, MTV2, Showtime, RTE and National Geographic have also embraced the genre in various ways. Broadcaster CBS airs UFC matches on Saturday nights, as sure a sign as any of penetrating the mainstream. Krieger sees the extreme genre fitting nicely into travel, natural history and lifestyle slots as long as producers find the right twist.

‘None of this is fictional,’ he says. ‘Some of the best reality programming on TV is sports [oriented] because it’s totally unscripted, there’s a great deal of drama… there are these marvelous athletes doing unbelievable things and there’s something at stake. It’s all reality.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.