By Lee Alan Hill
Its roots are in hunting and fishing, but bicycles and bulls are now just as big for OLN.
Ten years ago OLN, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network, made its debut, with a mere 4.8 million households and hopes of reaching a .1 total household rating.
“I really thought the network could succeed,” said Roger Werner, OLN’s first top executive, who stayed at the helm until 2001. “I thought that if we could reach those ratings levels we would be delivering to our owners, systems and advertisers.”
Today it is approaching 70 million households and according to Nielsen Media Research averages a .17 total HH rating, numbers that were compiled before this year’s record-setting Tour de France coverage.
What’s more, OLN has shown a 37 percent growth in the first two quarters of 2005 versus 2004 among total viewers, and a 23 percent increase with men 18 to 34, a target demo. It is a network that feels itself on the upswing.
The genesis of OLN, originally a companion service to what is now known as The Speed Channel, dates to 1994. Its ownership changes in its first half-decade were extensive and so knotty that when its corporate spokespeople were asked for an accounting, even they said the network’s history is confusing to track.
Comcast now wholly owns OLN, which bills itself as “Mother Nature’s Channel.” It features a broad array of mainstream and offbeat outdoor activities and proudly points to its conservation conscience.
“Back in 1994 I was shopping a concept for a cable network that became Speedvision,” said Mr. Werner, now an independent producer. “Cox jumped on-board and with then sole partner Times Mirror agreed to back Speedvision and also asked me to develop another idea they had-an outdoor network. I agreed.”
When OLN debuted in 1995 Comcast and Continental Cable (which later became MediaOne and after that AT&T Broadband) had also joined as equity partners.
Times Mirror sold its shares to its partners in 1997, and in 1998 Fox/Liberty Networks purchased a one-third stake in OLN and Speedvision in which each of the remaining partners’ shares were diluted.
In early 2001 Fox bought the shares of Cox and MediaOne, and later that year Comcast bought out all of Fox’s interest in OLN, using, in part, its shares of Speedvision, which is now known as Speed Channel and is wholly owned by Fox.
“We steadily increased our equity in OLN to 100 percent because we believe it is a terrific investment with exciting prospects for the future,” said Comcast President of Programming Jeff Shell, a former top Fox cable executive.
“There were a lot of changes in ownership, but that really did not affect what we were doing,” Mr. Werner said. “My thought was to start a channel that would be an outdoor magazine on the air.
“We started with hunting and fishing, which remained the base of our programming for years,” he said. “But we had a library of documentaries and some instructional programs on skiing and snowboarding and such sports. Because Times Mirror was one of the partners, we also had access to Field & Stream magazine and did programs in conjunction with them.”
Mr. Werner also brought in Peter Engelhart, a programming executive with whom he had worked when Mr. Werner headed ESPN, and John Wilcox from ABC Sports to oversee production of the events that were to become an important part of OLN.
Within a year, OLN had added such events to its programming as Criterium International cycling and in 1998 the Raid Gauloises adventure race. The acquisition of equestrian events such as the National Horse Show and the Hampton Classic helped OLN boost its national audience from the 16 million households in which it was viewed in its third year.
Attracting advertisers proved less of a challenge than creating a brand, Mr. Werner said. Automakers were quick to
sign on, particularly DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep, as well as “endemic advertisers from the sporting goods industry. We knew we were reaching their audience, because they let us know their investment was paying back at the cash register.”
In 1999 OLN captured its first Sports Emmy when its tentpole documentary series “Adventure Quest” won for outstanding electronic camerawork.
From its inception, Mr. Werner insisted that OLN be a TV network dedicated to “natural hunting, environmental issues and conservation. That was very important for us.”
Conservation is still part of the OLN credo.
“OLN is very concerned and very specific that everything they show has a conservation ethic,” said Tred Barta, the hunting and fishing writer who for three years has hosted “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta.”
“We did a show in which I went to the South and tracked wild hogs,” Mr. Barta said. “When you do that it’s dangerous, and in the Southern tradition you kill the boar with a knife. This is a coming-of-age thing in the South. After the first kill, a cross is made on the forehead of the hunter with the blood of the animal.
“It’s brutal, make no mistake,” he added. “But OLN was not concerned with that. With their programs they say, ‘Do what is authentic as long as it’s legal, it’s true and you eat what you kill.’ Hunters are conservationists. That’s how we see hunting, and OLN makes it real.”
“Our audience does believe in conservation,” OLN President Gavin Harvey said. “We’ll get e-mails about a fishing show in which the viewers will tell us that the campsite was too close to the river. Our audience is very aware and attuned to these issues, and so are we.”
What OLN also insists upon in its programming, say executives, is that it is infused with adrenaline. In 2003 the network premiered its first reality series, “Global Extremes: Mt. Everest-4Runners of Adventure.” The show followed six competitors on a race to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain and televised the finish live.
Another example: The network acquired the action sport tourney “The Gravity Games” in 2004, and to promote this summer’s event, developed a stylized documentary OLN is calling the “actionmentary.”
“How do you stage an event?” said Marc Fein, senior VP of programming and production. “A big part of that is to post-produce the event: show the footage and have the athletes telling the story. The actionmentary is a documentary style that does not need to be linear, and it performed very well for us when we introduced it last winter.”
From the outset, hosts of OLN programs were longtime experts in the field. Viewers are now seeing hosts whose celebrity comes from other fields but who are not merely fronting a program because of their status or ability to do voice-over. Rather, they have expertise and enthusiasm for the subjects. Former NFL star Larry Csonka, for example, began hosting shows featuring his passion for hunting and fishing in 2002. TV actors Gerald McRaney, Lee Horsely and Jameson Parker currently host programs about gun enthusiasts and hunting.
“Crossing over” with the sports has worked for OLN.
“It might sound amazing that bull riding and angling would go together on the same network,” said Randy Bernard, CEO of the Professional Bull Riders, who three years ago brought that organization into the OLN family, “except that when you work with Gavin, Marc , John [Carter, VP of production] and the others at OLN, you understand how they do that, and how they make the network work.”
“They made the effort to understand everything they could about the PBR and bull riding. They didn’t know a bull from a cow, but they learn your sport and how to televise it better. And that is why they are succeeding.”