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All of a Sudden, Everyone’s Outside

4/02/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Traditionally, a conversation about
“outdoors” programming would start and end with hunting
and fishing — basic shows featuring a guy or a couple
of guys out in the woods or on the water. Not anymore.

In 2011, ESPN dropped nearly all of its hunting and fishing
programming but despite this, the field has expanded in various
directions. Mainstream networks have branched out into
the genre with
reality and adventure
shows,
while hardcore
outdoors
networks have
added breadth
without losing
sight of their
brands, thanks
to such fare as
cooking shows
for hunters and
a reality series
about an upscale
fishing lodge.

“It has been
an evolution,”
Tom Hornish,
president and
CEO of the Outdoor
Channel,
said, adding that
his network has
been striving to
add more entertainment
and
production value
to shows over the last five years. “We want shows that are
creating drama. We talk a lot about character development.”

“We’ve done a lot of research in the last year and a half
and have heard from the consumers, saying, ‘We like that,
give us more,’ ” Michael Dingley, senior vice president of
content and development at The Weather Channel, said. For
a decade, Weather has branched out beyond its forecast format
wheel with weather-related series, though it’s recently
upped the ante with shows like Coast Guard: Alaska, Lifeguard,
Ice Pilots
and the Braving the Elements anthology series
that will boost original programming this year by 70%.

“It’s an investment that we need to move to the next
level,” Dingley said.

“There is an insatiable appetite for entertaining TV,” World
Fishing Network network president Mark Rubinstein said.

‘CONQUERING THE ELEMENTS’

All of these networks are looking to make authentic, factbased
shows that are also entertaining, National Geographic
Channel senior vice president of production
Michael Cascio said. “The elements of interesting television
don’t stop at the borders of drama and sitcoms.”

Nat Geo has the most recent entry into these waters with this
month’s Wicked Tuna, a series about the historic fishing community
of Gloucester, Mass., that can be seen on some level as
a descendant of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. “Real life
is interesting and viewers respond to these shows,” Cascio said.

“There are now all these subgenres, but they are all about
man versus nature at their core,” Nancy Daniels, Discovery
Channel’s executive vice president of production and
development, said. Beyond the massive success of Deadliest
Catch
, the network has outdoors-related series ranging
from American Logger to Gold Rush to survival shows like
Man Vs. Wild, Out of the Wild and Dual Survival.

Audience interest in these shows has exploded in part
because they are often about “getting back to our core, to
working with our hands, to earning money the old-fashioned
way — the idea of conquering the elements to provide
for your family engenders respect,” Daniels said.

Not every show works, however. Daniels pointed to Out
of the Wild
, a survival show that fared well in its Alaska episodes
but lost its audience when it moved to Venezuela. That
program, unlike
Discovery’s other
survival shows,
featured ordinary
citizens instead of
experts. “People
want to see experts,
they want people
at the top of their
game in shows like
this,” she said.

Expanding the
outdoor genre
presents a balancing
act for
each network,
according to programmers.
“We
are very careful
to remain true to
our DNA,” Dingley
said. (The
Weather Channel
has ditched
a movie series
that brought criticism.)
“We make
sure each show
is a fit and that the producers keep the Weather brand in
mind. That’s a huge responsibility for us.”

Sportsman Channel CEO Gavin Harvey agreed: “We don’t
need to stray. We’d consider any show that fits our brand but if
it feels like a bit of a stretch, we’re not going there.”

The network’s newest series, Dropped: Project Alaska, was
a good example of that, Harvey said — the idea of putting two
brothers in a survival situation for 28 days created great storytelling
opportunities “that could help expand our fan base,”
but the fact that they needed to hunt or fish to survive made
the show appealing to the typical Sportsman viewer. Similarly,
Harvey said he could envision a tournament shooting program
that would provide competition in a reality-style format,
but would keep a strong focus on tactics, technique and gear.

“It has to be more than mere entertainment. You have
to find a way to directly connect to the lifestyle,” he said.

ADHERING TO CORE

“The key is to broaden your audience without walking away
from your core,” Outdoor Channel’s Hornish said. That network
has several cooking shows aimed at hunters — “cooking
your own food is the culmination of the hunt” — but has
also expanded to new arenas like a lumberjack contest. “It has
competition and drama is not something you ordinarily see.”

There are plenty of ways to make it work, according to Rubinstein.
“You just have to push the envelope,” he said. “We
are looking at the lifestyle of fishing.” WFN introduced a reality
show called The Lodge, about life behind the scenes at an upscale
fishing lodge and a fishing-related travel show, Hookin’
Up
, with a comely young host, Mariko Izumi, who looks nothing
like the host of most fishing shows (though she has cred as
the niece of a renowned angler). “These shows resonate, so we
are looking to do more.”

Even Nat Geo Wild, a network about animals, has found
outdoors shows that fit its brand. America the Wild and
Dangerous Encounter are adventure shows with a host as
guide who has to “go to extremes” to show audiences unusual
animals and “their secret lives,” senior vice president
Geoff Daniels said.

Creating these new shows requires a serious commitment
because typically, they are relatively costly. “These
are remote locations,” Rubinstein said. “You can only get
to the place where we shoot The Lodge by helicopter.”

Added Outdoor’s Hornish: “We were spending a minimal
amount on production but we’ve doubled what we
spend,” noting that with only 37 million subscribers, his
network can only tackle deals that make business sense.
“We can’t just make the leap from spending $50,000 an episode
to $300,000 per episode. But to attract viewers and
build distribution, you have to spend money.”

‘IT MUST POP’

Given the surge of programming, the potential for saturation
means executives must find something that “appeals
to our audiences but also will emerge from the clutter — it
must pop, it must get you on a visceral level,” Daniels said.

Executives like Daniels and Cascio agreed that successful shows share a few common traits: color-ful characters or a strong community, compelling visuals and high stakes. Cascio said of the men in Wicked Tuna: “They are not fishing for sport. If they catch enough fish, they can make their mort-gage.”

There also needs to be a reminder that the shows are about more than just following a bunch of characters. “In one way it’s a typical TV show — it’s about a group of people, they just happen to fish,” Cascio said. “But it is also a show about the techniques and evolution of fishing. There are characters but there is an information-al takeaway.”

Timing helps too. Daniels noted that Gold Rush might have worked in any era but it debuted “when blue-collar workers were fed up that they couldn’t provide for their families and were losing control of their lives and were looking for another way.”

There’s plenty of room for variations on the same themes. WFN has a series called Reel Fishy Jobs that is essentially adapting Discovery’s Dirty Jobs to fit WFN’s brand by ex-ploring the commercial side of the fishing business and life-style. Several networks have shows that sound similar to Gold Rush. They include Discovery Channel, which paired it with a new series called Bering Sea Gold. “The process was different enough that it felt worthwhile and it was validat-ed when the audience em-braced it.”

Dingley said that while “everyone is doing Alaska right now,” executives must ask, “Is this so important that we need our own version? Your brand is at risk if you’re seen as jumping on the bandwagon. We’ve passed on good ideas because we felt they were being done elsewhere.”

And the entire genre is now moving in a new direction on Outside Television. A melding of Outside magazine and Resorts Sports Network two years ago, the network, while still tiny, is moving beyond its resort viewership and hopes to be in more than 5 million homes by year’s end. The net-work’s perspective on “outdoors” programming focuses on hiking, adventure and extreme sports.

Rob Faris, the head of programming, points to several unique approaches: Outside offers both a morning show (Outside Today) and a magazine show (The Buzz) that are practical, informational shows for nature lovers, but also plenty of programs that are more aspirational.

For instance, Deeper follows snowboarder Jeremy Jones as he journeys by foot to the most remote places on earth to snowboard; the production company had made a mov-ie but Faris realized the network had enough extra foot-age to also create a 10-episode series. Faris added that this year, the network will begin production of its own original series.

“It has sports, travel and a great character on an adven-ture,” he said. “And we’re only scratching the surface.”

September