The Big Apple is probably the last place you’d expect to find a cable channel whose pride is offering hunting and fishing programming 24/7, but that’s where The Sportsman Channel has set up new digs, thanks in part to an equity investment from Leo Hindery’s InterMedia Partners VII, LP in May. Following that, Michael Cooley, the 4-year-old channel’s president, CEO and founder, and an expert hunter, bagged two species indigenous to New York to helm the Gotham outpost for the Milwaukee-based channel that’s seen in 15 million cable and broadcast homes. Forgoing a sidearm for a mobile phone, Cooley received a tip this summer from Court TV’s former affiliate relations chief Bob Rose that a pair of young guns were available following Turner’s restructuring of Court. That’s when Cooley hunted down and eventually hired non-hunting New Yorker Mark Kang to be VP, affiliate relations, and Chris "Oz" Ozminkowski, to be director of affiliate relations, Eastern division. We asked Cooley, Kang and Ozminkowski about TSC’s plans for the capital infusion and how the channel can assist cable operators. We also wondered about Kang and Oz’s first hunt.
CW: You’ve had an infusion of capital from InterMedia Partners VII. What are you doing with it?
Michael Cooley: We used to operate on a shoestring. We now have a chance to go to the next level. No. 1, we can attract quality talent, offering compensation plans that are competitive with other networks. No. 2, we can do a little advertising. Not go crazy with it, but hit the important [cable] industry publications. We will also start a national consumer campaign to raise brand awareness.
Mark Kang: Our No. 1 goal with that infusion is to market ourselves to cable operators. We’ve talked with Charter and Cox about new, sophisticated marketing initiatives. Charter’s doing this cool loyalty program. Now we are able to partner with them, offer trips to their customers. And we are able to get data on how many people click on our logo at their website.
CW: Do you have a spending plan for these campaigns yet?
MC: It’s a well-thought-out plan as far as spending this year and next year. The hunting and fishing sector is very well-defined, and the hunting and fishing enthusiast is very easy to find through consumer trade groups or shows, magazines or affinity groups. The enthusiast buys hunting and fishing licenses every year, so he’s easy to identify and target. Now it’s an opportunity to market and promote our product.
MK: There are 47 million registered hunters and anglers. That’s a huge database. What’s more intriguing is that most states provide the database to the public, so we can target that niche audience with our product and message. And we can also reach that target for our cable operator partners.
CW: Will any of this money go toward new original programming?
MC: Not a large portion of it. We have such a great core audience of talented, independent producers, and so the content, even right out of the gate, was pretty top-notch. We have 40-plus hours per week of original programming from independent producers, so that stacks up well against more established networks. If we didn’t have the content from day one we wouldn’t have gotten the deals we’ve gotten. Will we use [the capital] to create some original programming? Yes. But do we need to do that in order to make our content better? Not necessarily. But we’ll always be looking to make our content better.
[Editor’s Note: The Sportsman Channel has entered the YouTube craze. Its relaunched website will feature viewer-generated video content relating to hunting and fishing.]
CW: What’s the thinking behind a New York office?
MC: We opened the New York office to accommodate these two guys. We found the right talent here. But it’s also to have a presence in New York, near the big advertising firms. This was in the back of our minds. The fact that these guys are here just moved it along. We want to build a six-person office.
CW: What got you interested in this channel, Mark?
MK: Well, Michael is a real hunter and fisherman. That says a lot about this channel. Also it was the content, which is really user-generated content coming from all these independent producers, who are competing every day to get on our channel. That results in better content, and I’m excited about that. That’s very efficient and very creative.
CW: Shows like yours would be great in HD. What are your plans for that?
MC: We are already shooting content in HD. We are also encouraging producers who are buying new equipment to buy HD equipment. We will probably be providing HD VOD as early as the second quarter. If the HD technology is there for us, probably as early as the end of the year we’ll have HD content. And there’ll be no need for two separate channels. You’ll get HD content from one provider.
CW: Chris, what will you be doing?
Chris Ozminkowski: I’ll be concentrating on the Northeast region out of the New York office, trying to expand distribution by helping cable operators.
CO: We’ll identify people in their community who hunt and fish and entice them to become cable subscribers through marketing initiatives, and things like hunting and fishing trip giveaways. Not only that, the trip winners, who will be guided by expert talent from our channel, potentially could be shown hunting and fishing on one of our shows. So we’re giving cable operators the chance to make their customers stars.
MK: We can also do these trip giveaways, something that the hunter and fisherman is passionate about, with the triple play, or really any service that cable operators want to market.
CO: Even in a market that is 60-70% penetrated with cable, we can still help. We have a list of people who are passionate about hunting and fishing, a list that [the cable operator] doesn’t have. We can educate those people [about cable] directly; we can draw that potential sub to the cable operator and help them grow their digital and analog base.
MK: And we localize our pitch when we are at hunting and fishing trade shows. We set up a booth and mention to visitors that they need to get cable so they can watch our channel.
CW: What did you two learn at Court TV that you will apply to The Sportsman Channel?
MK: I learned about servicing our affiliates. Obviously our top priority is sales, but sales are synonymous with service. At every level — regional, system, corporate — we find that people talk among themselves. One of the things they talk about is who really is a good partner. We want that consistency at The Sportsman Channel. We want operators to know we’ll stand in the trenches with them. I also learned about creativity from Court TV. We are an independent network, as we were at Court TV, so we have to be creative.
CO: With an independent channel you have the flexibility to react to your customer’s needs. You don’t have to go through a lot of red tape to get an answer for an affiliate. I can pick up the phone and talk to our CEO or VP of affiliate sales. [Also,] the audience is passionate for our programming. They’re not just watching another movie — they’re really into the hunting and fishing shows, so we’ll be working with this audience as we did at Court TV.
CW: Do you two fish and hunt?
CO: No. Mark and I are the only ones at TSC who don’t.
MC: That’s not really true. I’d say more than 70% of our staff hunts and fishes, even the women. Mark and Chris haven’t had access to hunting and fishing being in New York City.
CW: So what will you do about these two New Yorkers, Michael?
MC: We’re first going to put them out on the ranges and let them shoot, and then I’ll take them out hunting. They’re already all in — they want to hunt. We’ll take them on a pheasant hunt. You gotta break them in easy. This will be a gentleman’s hunt.
MK: The only gun I’ve ever held was a BB gun when I was in high school trying to protect myself in Queens, New York.
CO: I won quickest draw at a Comcast retreat, but my concentration on this hunt will be applying the camouflage makeup.
MC: Birds are color-blind, so you don’t have to worry.