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California | Michael Hiltzik / GOLDEN STATE

Vanishing Breed Hunts for Space on Cable Systems

May 19, 2003|Michael Hiltzik

"The search for gold is quintessentially American," Andy Dale was telling me the other day, sounding a bit like a college professor lecturing students about American corporate culture. In this case, however, Dale was making a very specific point about the Outdoor Channel, the growing cable network he serves as president and chief executive.

Outdoor traces its roots back to an itinerant marketer of gold-prospecting tips and equipment named George "the Old Buzzard" Massie. A burly, gregarious Kentuckian with a Theodore Roosevelt mustache, Massie was known for his inexhaustible drive to sell memberships in his Gold Prospectors Assn. of America, a club that today claims 32,000 dues-paying members.

According to family lore passed on by his son, Perry, who now heads Global Outdoors Inc., the parent company of the club and the cable channel, the Old Buzzard, who died in 1993, moved into broadcasting by videotaping short programs recounting his own prospecting exploits and pitching memberships. He would buy time on small, generally rural TV stations to air them on weekend mornings, at which point the Massie family discovered that there was a natural crossover audience between gold prospecting hopefuls and the hunters and fishermen whose own niche programs aired in the same scheduling ghetto.

They kept that lesson in mind as they shifted George's programs from over-the-air stations to a satellite transponder serving the old C-band dishes -- those huge metal receivers that once sprouted like big metal sunflowers in rural backyards but are now almost extinct. The cost and capacity of a full-time transponder forced upon them the realization that they needed more than prospecting come-ons, so they broadened their offerings into a wide range of hunting and fishing shows.

"The channel was still mostly a tool to market the gold prospecting club," Perry Massie says. "But there was a lot of other programming available -- every mayor in Alabama wanted to do his own fishing show, and they couldn't find anyone to carry it."

After they learned that small cable operators were picking up their satellite feed for retransmission, the Massie family moved off C-band and into cable programming in earnest. They mortgaged most of their personal assets to make the transition and endured a few scary years of near-bankruptcy, but in time the company returned to the black.

The Outdoor Channel is now the tail that wags the retriever, so to speak: As of last year it accounted for 80% of the company's revenue, with the gold club and a unit that operates camping and prospecting trips to Global's prospecting claims in Alaska and elsewhere providing the rest. The company's shares, of which about 90% are controlled by George's widow, Wilma, and her sons, Perry and Tom, are listed on the Nasdaq bulletin board.

Over the last few years Outdoor has been showing up on an increasing number of major cable systems across the country. It is now carried by both satellite TV services -- EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network and Hughes Electronics Corp.'s DirecTV -- and with nearly 23 million subscribers, it may be on the verge of reaching the critical mass that attracts national advertisers. For its audience, which is a gratifying 78% male -- the male TV demographic being as elusive a game animal as the bongo of East Africa -- that means a step up in commercials from the camouflage outfitters and outdoor grills it has now to, say, pickup truck manufacturers. The company's ad executives say they're beginning to hear encouraging noises from the latter.

Outdoor is still the kind of low-cost operation one would expect from its pedigree. Although its Temecula headquarters houses state-of-the-art editing and studio equipment, it acquires most of its programming by bartering ad time with independent producers of such shows as "Babe Winkelman's Good Fishing." The closest thing it has to a mainstream star may be the 1970s rocker Ted Nugent ("Cat Scratch Fever"), a lifelong bowhunter who produces the weekly "Spirit of the Wild," a graphic paean to the elemental virtues of stalking and killing one's own meat. ("My idea of fast food is a running whitetail deer!")

But like the hosts of Outdoor Channel hunting programs who shadow their quarry from wooded stands, the Massies represent a small, if not vanishing, breed in cable programming: the rugged independent. They're trying to build a viable franchise without being part of a well-heeled and well-connected parent in broadcasting, like Viacom Inc. or Walt Disney Co., or in cable distribution, like Comcast Corp. or AOL Time Warner Inc. By most measures they're in an unequal fight.

"They're doing what a lot of the independent networks are trying to do," says Derek Baine, a senior analyst at the market research firm of Paul Kagan Associates. "They're using home-grown programming and low costs to build slowly. But it's very hard in this environment to take a stand like that."

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