Outdoor Channel‘s fervent hunt for deeper cable penetration may hit a temporary barrier later this month when Comcast plans to move the net to a $4.95/month sports tier in Chicago. The switch could cost the net up to 500K subs, at a critical time when competitors Men’s Outdoors and Recreation and The Sportsman Channel are actively seeking the same carriage prize. In fact, recent deals with Time Warner Cable have allowed MOR to broach Outdoor’s roughly 30mln distribution number in less than 4 years in the field and land at 33mln with the help of only 6mln cable subs (MOR is fully leveraged on DirecTV and DISH). Meanwhile, as the smaller The Sportsman Channel has racked up recent deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox, Outdoor is hunkered down in negotiations with 6 major operators that cover 60% of its sub base. "We obviously don’t like the possibility of losing 500K subs, but it’s not the end of the world for us," said Outdoor COO Tom Hornish. A few of the talks are in the "late stages," he said, bolstered by the net’s new lower rate card for both existing and new subs that in some instances slashes sub fees by half. MOR, however, believes it trumps Outdoor’s price cuts with a bold gambit of its own: zero sub fees. Instead, the net banks on revenue from partners that are integrated through sponsored programming blocks and interactivity surrounding featured products and services. For example, during a fishing series, an interstitial may pop up that allows viewers to access more information about a particular lure being used in the show. "It keeps our network sticky," said Marc Krigsman, pres of MOR parent The Networks Group. "We give viewers connectivity, and we’ve done it in a way that looks like content." To this end, cable’s increasing use of interactive apps may benefit MOR going forward. Even so, Cornish contended that Outdoor’s programming is "much more exciting" and that the net’s greater VOD and broadband offerings will help close important deals. Indeed, Versus’ transition to more mainstream sports has opened a crowded hunting season.

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