Nets Walk Line With ‘Kill Shots’

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Hundreds of programming hours across three sportsman-friendly cable channels typically come down to the same crucial money shot: a hunter’s bullet impacting prey.

They’re called kill shots, and they’re the outdoor network equivalent of a knockout punch in a boxing match or an elimination ceremony on a reality show. They’re a program’s climax, the moment when a hunter hits-or misses-his target.

While contestants killing a chicken on “Survivor” can generate a flurry of angry letters, channels showcasing field sports-Outdoor Life Network (now rebranded OLN), The Outdoor Channel and The Sportsman Channel-have avoided controversy despite having a significant portion of their programming devoted to on-screen killing of animals.

Such controversy bullet-dodging, so to speak, isn’t by accident. Programmers and participants take ethical sportsmanship very seriously. The channels have established kill-shot policies, detailing exactly what can and cannot be shown, policies that often become more restrictive as the channel grows. At least one has toned down its content in recent years.

Still, animal activists occasionally take aim. Heidi Prescott, senior VP of campaigns at the Humane Society, dubbed the programs “outdoor snuff films.”

“We feel shooting animals for a misguided competition is unconscionable and feel reputable media firms should not encourage or promote the contest killing of animals,” said Ms. Prescott, who has sent letters to the networks.

For viewers like Ms. Prescott, kill shots represent a twist on the television indecency issue, in this case pitting progressive protesters against heartland sports.

Jake Hartwick, executive VP of the independently owned, 12-year-old Outdoor Channel, has a protest letter from an animal rights group mounted on his office wall. “With the hunting community, they want to see the shot,” said Mr. Hartwick, whose company just launched a spinoff high-definition channel. “It’s the culmination of the hunt. This isn’t about politics. We’ve been doing these things since the days we lived in caves.”

Yet Mr. Hartwick said his channel’s kill shot policy has become more sensitive in recent years: “We’ve become more restrictive. … Obviously we have to adapt with the times.”

The smallest of the outdoor brands, the privately owned Sportsman Channel, which launched two years ago and is available in 12 million homes, touts itself as the most authentic of the trio due to a pure hunting and fishing lineup. President and CEO Michael Cooley said he will show kill shots other networks won’t, though he draws the line at certain images, such as bullet impacts in slow motion.

“We show the complete harvesting of the animal, not just the kill shot,” he said. “I think [animal rights organizations] have a true cause with the ethical treatment of farm-raised animals, whereas in the wild, the animal is free … and mature.”

At the other end of the kill-shot spectrum is ESPN Outdoors, the mega-sports network’s weekend block of hunting and fishing programming.

The Disney-owned network doesn’t use the term “kill shots,” but rather “impact shots.” ESPN never shows an animal falling to the ground after being shot, according to Jerry Vaillancourt, producer of ESPN Outdoors. Each program is introduced with a warning that viewer discretion is advised. Animals running away after being hit is permitted, but only if they do not appear to be suffering. The actual kill shot must occur with “a minimum of apparent shock to the animal’s body.

“Our policy is based on a principle of good taste,” Mr. Vaillancourt said.

Ms. Prescott said she prefers that channels show a complete harvesting rather than an edited version. “We don’t believe in sanitizing the sport-and you can put ‘sport’ in quotes,” she said.

Network representatives said the majority of programming complaints come not from animal lovers but from hunters (though, as one executive corrected, “hunters are animal lovers, too”).

Authenticity and credibility are of enormous importance to hunting and fishing enthusiasts, and executives are constantly mindful of offense.

“If you stage scenes and our viewers spot it,” Mr. Hartwick said, “they feel like they’ve been lied to.”

“If you say ‘horn’ instead of ‘antler,'” agreed OLN President Gavin Harvey, “there’s people who know the difference and you will hear from them.”

Of the outdoor networks, Comcast-owned OLN is the largest with 60 million subscribers. This year OLN launched two video-on-demand channels-the action-sports-oriented Hazardous and the field sports channel Hooks & Bullets.

Despite statistics showing a large hunting constituency, actual viewership of hunting on TV tends to be small. Only OLN is large enough to be rated, and its average 2004 prime-time household delivery was about 100,000, according to Nielsen Media Research, despite carrying a broader range of outdoor programming than the other networks.

All three channels were given a competitive boost in 2003, when TNN rebranded as Spike and ditched a block of high-profile hunting and fishing shows.

While the audience for this fare is relatively small, those who do watch tend to fall into the elusive 25- to 54-year-old males category.

“They have a dedicated and devoted core audience that is similar to an HGTV,” cable programming consultant Ray Solley said. “They watch it, they leave it on, it becomes a default channel. For a lot of guys, these channels rank up there with ESPN.”

A trio of networks catering to a small niche can sometimes result in a merger or two, but executives for all three said they have no interest in any future acquisitions. “I would rather double our ratings and viewership than [add] their distribution and programming,” said OLN’s Mr. Harvey.

Mr. Hartwick said Outdoor Channel was once approached by Disney, but the companies were not a good match.

“Disney is not very comfortable with what we do,” he said. “We are pro-firearms and act like it, and that gets you respect from that core constituency. Besides, we’re having way too much fun.”

As for measuring balancing kill shots with viewer sensitivities, Mr. Hartwick pointed out that feedback can only improve with growth.

“The day PETA launches a national campaign against our channel,” he said, “is the day we know we’ve arrived.”