By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
OLN celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer and will unveil a new logo as well as a new programming philosophy designed to attract a wider audience with features such as its most ambitious acquisition yet-the off-network episodes of “Survivor,” the highest-rated reality-competition series in TV history.
The Comcast-owned cable network, previously called Outdoor Life Network often distributed through extended or digital tiers, offers programming that focuses on competition and adventure, ranging from events such as the Boston Marathon and Tour de France to original series focusing on fly-fishing and surfing.
“Outdoor Life has carved out a niche in competitive action sports on the dial and on-demand,” said Jeff Shell, Comcast’s president of programming. “OLN is also helping us add value and differentiate our cable product from satellite with robust VOD content.”
“The pieces for change and growth are coming together nicely,” said Gavin Harvey, OLN’s president since February 2004.
“Our new logo, with its bold red background, is representative of a pretty perfect change that we’ve accomplished in the past year, a great change,” Mr. Harvey continued.
“The pieces,” as he phrased it, include the highest ratings ever for the network’s live coverage of the Tour de France but more broadly indicate a shift from being a network geared specifically to outdoor enthusiasts to one that also embraces those who may not participate in outdoor sports but enjoy watching from the sidelines.
All in all, said Mr. Harvey, “We’re the network that takes you into the heart of Mother Nature and the spirit of the characters-human and otherwise-who push her limits.”
During the past year OLN has adjusted the production and presentation of its tentpole programs-which besides the Tour de France include such events as The Gravity Games and the top competitions of the Professional Bull Riders tour-to “demystify,” as Mr. Harvey phrased it, the sports by offering explanations of the sports and more background on the participants, human and otherwise.
“We did research,” said Marc Fein, senior VP of programming and production. “While our base audience is still men 25 to 54, we found an increase with men 18 to 49 as well as with women when we did more programming and coverage about a sport or event, not just covered it.”
Second in the game plan for growth was a new programming philosophy, one that would continue to include shows that explored the “aches and pains,” as Mr. Harvey called it, of such activities as fishing and hunting, but also added “a new generation,” he said, of original programming and acquisitions.
“What they do at OLN I call fusion outdoors,” said Tred Barta, the outspoken host of “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta,” a hunting and fishing show in which Mr. Barta takes on the outdoors.
“They would not call it ‘fusion,’ but that’s the word for it,” he added. “They’re showing the outdoors as it was meant to be shown, with that kind of energy and youthful appeal. They’ve broken away from the ‘fogy’ approach that used to be all you saw on TV.”
OLN has also this year launched two video-on-demand networks, OLN Hooks & Bullets for hunters and fishermen and OLN Hazardous for action sports fans, with plans for OLN HD to launch this fall. Mr. Harvey noted, “We have the events and programming that lend themselves to VOD, and in particular with HD, the programming with the visual impact that is perfect for that technology.”
Programming is sold internationally through E! Entertainment, which is a sister network also controlled and partly owned by Comcast. There are currently no plans to launch any international networks, though OLN does own one-third of OLN Canada, which is managed by CTV but to which it licenses its name and much of its programming, including the Tour de France.
OLN unabashedly takes proven TV forms, but the network “puts our own spin to them,” said Mr. Fein. “With ‘Fearless’ we have a show that features biographies, but done our way, focusing on people who have overcome great challenges and odds.
“We’ll even do a cooking show,” Mr. Fein added. “But we do it our way. We’re premiering ‘The All-Star Barbecue Showdown’ this summer. It’s a cooking show, yes, but one that takes that genre into the outdoor competition.”
Suppliers and partners are pleased. The Professional Bull Riders organization has nine events a year on NBC Sports, and until three years ago the bulk of PBR’s televised events were on TNN. But when that network accomplished a metamorphosis into Spike TV and changed its programming orientation, the PBR went looking for a new home.
OLN now offers several dozen-the total figure varies yearly-of the 160 PBR annual events yearly, including much of the ProRodeo Tour. It also has support and background programming such as “Cowboy 101.”
“People questioned whether OLN was big enough for us,” said Randy Bernard, the PBR’s CEO. “It is because they have the passion and the vision for what we do. I love their attitude.”
Mr. Bernard noted that since moving to OLN the organization has increased revenue from its sponsorships to $22 million. The network has also been key to tremendous growth for Professional Bull Riding, said Mr. Bernard, who referenced a 2004 report by Scarborough Sports Marketing that indicated a 53 percent growth in audience. “With the OLN people, their enthusiasm was incredible,” Mr. Bernard added. “But more than that, they wanted to approach the coverage in the most expansive way. They did hours of research, and we discovered that women do watch, but they like the bulls more than [they like] the cowboys. So OLN began doing commentary about the bulls. It’s a whole new point of view and a great addition.”
acquisition to date is the more than 160 off-CBS episodes of “Survivor,” which gives the network seasons one through 10 as well as the option for the next two seasons.
The cost to OLN is a reported $60,000 to $70,000 per episode, though Mr. Harvey would only note, “It has not eaten up our budget. We still have what we need for our other programming and promotions.”
OLN will run the show Monday through Thursday at 7 and 10 p.m., with repeats of the week’s episodes on weekends.
“Why did we sell to OLN? Because, first of all, they were very aggressive,” said Joe DiSalvo, president of domestic television sales for King World Productions. “I saw people with a passion for the show who wanted to develop a niche for it. Plus, we looked at the brand they’re creating and thought it would be a perfect fit. [Creator and executive producer] Mark Burnett also agreed.”
OLN’s purchase of “Survivor” was followed by King World’s sale of other reality-competition properties off-network: “The Amazing Race” to GSN and “America’s Next Top Model” to VH1. But the market for syndicated reality is in a sense uncharted territory, as the genre has yet to prove it can play in repeats when the audience is aware of who won the competition.
Mr. DiSalvo is quick to point out that DVDs of “Survivor” seasons have sold well, and though the series has been among the top-rated broadcast shows each season it has been on, 88 percent of TV viewers nationwide have not yet sampled it.”
“This was a landmark acquisition for us,” Mr. Harvey said. “It is definitely a risk, but this is a blockbuster, first-class, blue-chip TV franchise. Yes, it also tells [the industry] that we’re making an effort to go after viewers in a big way. Getting ‘Survivor’ opens their eyes to that and will really brand our network.”
“‘Survivor’ will bring us new viewers,” a confident Mr. Fein said. “There’s a whole generation of TV viewers who may not have seen the original run but have heard about it or started watching the show [later] and want to catch the early seasons.”
OLN will present each “Survivor” season in its entirety and also has plans to package the program for future runs around themes such as “Most Villainous Characters” a
nd “Biggest Twists.”
But while the series is meant to be a draw, original programming will still be key.
“The thing to know about OLN is that they want authentic coverage,” said Chris Dorsey, whose Orion Multimedia has produced 10 hunting and outdoor shows for the network, including “The World of Beretta,” hosted by actor Gerald McRaney.
“They want their producers to live the brand,” Mr. Dorsey added. “I took Gavin Harvey on his first elk hunt last year. His enthusiasm was incredible. He really wanted to do it because he wanted to understand what his viewers do.”
“I am the poster child for the diversity of interests our fans have,” Mr. Harvey said. “In that sense, this is a dream job for me. Like our most constant and loyal viewers, the outdoor sports we show are in my DNA.
“The events we cover and our programs have been shown on TV before, some of it from its very beginning as a medium,” he said. “But I look at OLN as the daring, impetuous son. We’re the next generation.”
OLN at a Glance
Number of subscribers: 63 million
Most popular programs: Events such as the Tour de France, the Professional Bull Riders tour, The Gravity Games; regular series such as “Fearless,” “E-Force” and “Outdoor Investigation”
Top executive: Gavin Harvey, president
Headquarters: Stamford, Conn.
How long in operation: Since June 1995