Outdoor’s Dale Still Panning for Gold Andy Dale knows a little something about small companies. His first job in cable was with FNN, the short-lived financial network that was so cash-poor that in the dark days before direct deposit, Andy’s first order of business each payday was to run to the bank before his check bounced. Later, he ran a small gift shop selling, among other things, knotty pine furniture. Later still, he went to work for a company that – honestly – helped people pan for gold. Its founder, an outdoorsman named George Massie, ran a camp in Idaho for weekend gold prospectors. Chief among Massie’s marketing vehicles was a TV show he produced and sold to stations across the country. Eventually Massie bought satellite time and created a distribution mechanism for what he would eventually call The Outdoor Channel. 15 years ago Massie hired native Brit Dale, who dreamed of settling in America; his job was in public relations. And while his mentor has since passed on, as the person now running The Outdoor Channel, in many ways Andy is still helping George Massie’s family-run legacy pan for gold. The only difference is the river is digital and in high-def. After years of trying to get distribution one operator at a time – and often one system at a time – in 2005 Andy Dale is going to roll the dice. In the first quarter, he’ll soft-launch HD, a bold move by a relatively small network (26 million homes) without deep pockets. Yet Dale believes it is time. Outdoor wasn’t around 20 years ago when the first wave of cable programming hit, he says. That wave established the basic super-networks. But with the advent of HD and the demand for HD content, he sees a second window of opportunity. "We have a classic opening – the kind that doesn’t come around every day – to take advantage of a new technology to gain market share," he says. He’s also a closet techie who’s believed in HD for years, but he’s waited for consumer demand to percolate. Now, Dale feels demand is ripe and he’s eager to strike. He cites the enormous number of HD web sites, chat rooms and forums. As for distribution, "We’ve always been very good at generating demand from the ground up. And just like we did with the hunting and fishing community, I know we can do that with people who want HD." Dale says the (forgive me) nature of his network’s programming lends itself to HD. "When you go to an electronics store or to a trade show, most of them use outdoor programming to demonstrate the benefit of HD. The technology is made for the outdoors." And while he admits some of the production companies that work with his network have been slower than others to embrace HD, he feels all will soon be on board. To that end, Outdoor created an HD "boot camp" for its producers, and trained them on HD equipment, while instilling a sense that the higher the definition the higher the technical standards. As far as cost, Dale contends that going HD-only gets expensive if a network is doing live programming. And as a network that was budgeted to buy a lot of $40K cameras anyway, buying $90K cameras wasn’t that big a leap. As he told me, "Once you’ve made the commitment to adopt HD as your house format, the decision-making process gets much easier." M.C. Antil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.