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2/08/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

The World Poker Tour was Travel Channel’s ratings ace in the hole when Pat Younge took over the network’s reins in 2005, back when it was part of Discovery Communications.

Three years later, the game has changed. Travel, having been swapped to cable operator Cox Communications, is virtually an independent network in a pay TV world dominated by multimedia conglomerates such as The Walt Disney Co., News Corp. and Discovery. There are no longer free cross-promotional opportunities on sibling networks such as Discovery Channel and TLC. And there is less leverage in getting cable operators, satellite-TV providers and telephone companies to take on its programming, now that it is on its own.

Snapshot
A look at Travel’s average primetime viewership:
SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research
2003 370,000
2004 390,000
2005 399,000
2006 417,000
2007 453,000

Not that Travel was setting the cable world on fire with regards to viewership under Discovery: the network averaged 453,000 viewers in 2007, a far cry from industry leader Disney Channel’s primetime average of 2.5 million viewers.

“There’s always an advantage being part of an overall umbrella of networks and I’m sure being a part of Discovery helped established the Travel Channel,” said Katz Television Group director of programming Bill Carroll. “Now they have to remain a relevant brand without the benefit of Discovery.”

With the poker hand now folded, Younge is betting the channel’s fortunes instead on series fronted by a world-class traveling chef, a food writer with an iron-clad stomach and an attractive travel hostess.

That would be the original series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown’s Passport — shows he can put his chips behind now that Travel Channel stands alone from the broad collection of (newly revamped) channels at Discovery. Travel was sold to Cox as part of a buyout of the Atlanta-based company’s 25% ownership interest in Discovery Communications. It’s now the only national programming network run by the third-largest U.S. cable operator.

Younge is also trying to create greater brand awareness through the use of new media, such as a redesigned Web site that can provide travelers with video clips about where to shop in Milan or what sights to see in Paris; new video-on-demand products featuring segments from popular shows such as Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations; and high-definition programming, including new episodes of original series Michael Palin’s New Europe.

Thus far, Younge has been charting the right course for the 91 million-subscriber network, said Cox Communications president Pat Esser.

“Viewership has been trending up for well over a year, ad revenue is going up and Web usage is climbing … every metric, in terms of consumption, [is] all playing in the right direction,” said Esser.

Indeed, the network is making its mark in:

Advertising revenue: Net ad-sales revenue surpassed $100 million for the first time in 2007; and is expected to reach $109 million in 2008, according to SNL Kagan.

Total revenue: The network generated $190 million in total revenue in 2007, up from $174 million in 2006.

Web audience: Page views for its redesigned Web site (www.travelchannel.com) are up 81% for the fourth quarter to 29 million compared to the previous year’s 16 million.

TV audience: The network drew 453,000 primetime viewers in 2007, a 9% increase above the 417,000 viewers the network averaged for the same period in 2006, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

The ratings gain happened without support from arguably the most popular show in the network’s history, the World Poker Tour.

The series — which followed several poker players as they participated in the WPT’s tournaments around the world — debuted in 2003 on the channel and became an immediate success, averaging 808,000 viewers an episode. The show peaked in 2004, averaging more than 1.1 million, nearly three times the 390,000 viewers Travel Channel averaged in primetime that year.

“We needed it like a junkie needs crack,” said Younge, who joined Travel as the network’s president and general manager after serving as a programming executive at the British Broadcasting Co.

But while the show was successful, Younge said it didn’t fit what he felt was the image of the brand, as defined by a triangle that connects a lust for life to immersive exploration to credible authorship of travel content.

“That was the downside of the World Poker Tour … it did bring us a rating number, but it so damaged the brand in the eyes of the traveling community that it impacted our ability to monetize it somewhere else,” he said. “We are a travel play.”

FOLDING 'POKER’

As a result, Travel Channel last May did not renew the World Poker Tour for a sixth season. GSN has since picked it up.

Which was fine with Cox. “That was one of the first big discussions we had to have with Pat and we got it immediately,” said Esser. “His point was 'We’re not the poker network — we’re the travel network.’ ”

In particular, Younge wanted to boost original episodes of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, a series starring the famed chef and author of the best selling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

The show, which takes Bourdain to both domestic and international destinations where the local hosts treat him to the area’s culture and cuisine, has actually surpassed WPT’s viewership. Last fall’s third season averaged 781,000 viewers.

So now, instead of 14 third-season episodes of No Reservations, there is now a slate of 26 new shows for season four, which launched last month.

Travel has also more than doubled its episode runs of Bizarre Foods — in which Zimmern eats exotic delicacies from around the world, like a live, beating frog’s heart — and Passport, Brown’s video travel guide to such destinations as Costa Rica, now in its third season.

“This year we doubled down on success,” added Younge. “We doubled down on the shows that are working and giving viewers much more of what they want.”

The network also is investing in new shows such as Cash and Treasures, which seeks to uncover lost relics, buried jewels and other valuable items at real locations accessible to the public.

Younge and Esser say Travel Channel also needs to extend its brand beyond television and drive advertising and sponsorship opportunities in new media.

“It was a very well-performing linear network, but they had not expanded into video-on-demand; they had just started thinking about revamping travelchannel.com; and they didn’t have a high-def product up,” Esser said.

In August, the network revamped its video-on-demand service to offer more short-form content, rather than the full-length episodes provided under Discovery’s reign.

Instead of 20 or 30 programs, Younge said Travel Channel On Demand now offers nearly 200 short videos from the network’s various shows, like Passport.

When it does offer long-form video, it’s often exclusive to VOD. For example, episodes of its series Michael Palin’s New Europe — which visits rarely seen countries behind Europe’s former “Iron Curtain” — are available on demand a week before they air on the channel.

The result has been a 181% lift in video-on-demand orders since August, compared to the year-ago period, although the network would not release specific figures.

The network has also revamped its Web site over the past year. Once mostly a destination for user-generated vacation videos, Younge says the network now features rich video from shows such as Passport and Cash and Treasures.

The site also features updated travel news and features, as well as text and video-based travel guides for popular destinations like Rome that include attractions, restaurant recommendations and historical facts.

The redesign has helped the network average 1 million unique visitors a month and increase its page views by 81% to 29 million for fourth-quarter 2007, compared to the same period in 2006, according to Younge.

“Twelve months ago, we were a glorified fan site. But now, we have more offerings for travelers, offering destination content, travel guides that are increasingly popular on our Web site,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the network has abandoned user-generated content. In fact, Travel Channel is training eager consumers to film quality travelogues through its Travel Channel Academy.

Launched in May, the $2,000, four-day course allows consumers to get training on how to shoot and edit film.

Once they complete the course, Younge said graduates can submit suitable content of their travel adventures for exhibition on the site. Already, the network has featured content from 10 of its 300 academy graduates in a series of on-air specials, dubbed What’s Your Trip.

Younge said content generated from its Travel Academy “is cost effective, on-brand and can be used on a range of platforms.”

Esser said Travel Channel will also seek to form partnerships with other companies to extend the brand beyond television. It now works with Netherlands-based Tele-Atlas to provide audio and video content to portable navigational devices.

The network will be featured at next month’s The New York Times Travel Show, aimed at general travelers, as well as April’s World Travel and Tourism Council Summit in Dubai.

“With the content we have there are other ways we can unlock value on both sides,” Esser said. “It’s not just about TV for us.”

HANDS OFF

Younge said the network is thriving under Cox’s hands-off management. Under Discovery’s ownership, the network had to share marketing, programming and other financial resources with the likes of Discovery Channel and TLC.

Travel’s status as the only national programming network at Cox gives it the freedom to stay focused and provides sufficient resources to build up the business, said Younge. For example, its operating budget climbed from $82 million in 2007 to $87 million in 2008.

Also, the network’s January launch of its high-definition channel would not have happened as quickly had the network still been in Discovery’s portfolio.

“We’re much more fleet of foot,” Younge said.

There is access to Cox Enterprises’ television and newspaper assets. There is access to Cox Communications’s technical expertise. There is almost “no downside,” said Younge.

Well, maybe one: Young said losing cross-promotion opportunities on fully-distributed cable networks such as Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC was a “blow.” But he added that Cox has filled that void by setting aside money to buy spots on cable networks, including Discovery.

To some Travel Channel employees, like Bourdain, the transition has been uneventful. “I haven’t quite noticed that they’re there,” Bourdain told Multichannel News. “There might even been a sense of less corporate worry [regarding content].”

But Younge said the changeover has had challenges. Younge and the network’s 110 employees have been hard at work adapting to Cox’s information technology and other business-related operations while preparing a March move five miles from Discovery’s Silver Spring, Md., facilities to new offices in Friendship Heights, Md.

And the network won’t cut the Discovery umbilical cord completely: The network will handle affiliate relations for Travel for the foreseeable future, according to Younge.

TV One executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Brad Samuels said that even though Discovery will be marketing Travel to affiliates, the channel will still be challenged. Now, it’s not part of a package of networks, giving it less leverage with distributors than in the Discovery days.

“Certainly, it can be difficult to get distributors to focus and prioritize doing deals with a single distributed network when you have to deal with four our five programming groups, so it’s a challenge to keep your profile up and remain top-of-mind with decision-makers,” said Samuels, who negotiates deals for the Comcast-owned network aimed at African Americans.

But Samuels also said that distributors also appreciate networks such as Travel because it’s easier to secure deals with a single programmer, as opposed to a five- or six-service arrangement with an MTV Networks or a Discovery Communications.

And that’s why Younge has no reservations about Travel Channel choosing how to play its cards in the programming game, all by itself.

 

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