Outdoor Channel’s Werner: Still a Great Sport Given that Outdoor Channel CEO Roger Werner has seemingly been around since man first ran wire down a mountain, you somehow think he’d be older than 57. After all, back when ESPN was still reporting on football games during time-outs from the far corners of end zones, Roger was a wet-behind-the-ears consultant, brought in to help chart the network’s future. His employer at the time, McKinsey & Company, had been retained by Getty Oil to make some sense of a new investment, an amorphous mass of yet-unharnessed sports passion tucked away in the hills of rural Connecticut. And given that it had no real media practice at the time, McKinsey assigned the gig to the next best thing: Werner, a bright young kid with some package goods marketing chops, as well as some first-hand experience buying media and producing TV spots. Roger told me that those early years at ESPN were as much about business as sports, if not more so. He said a great deal of his time back then was spent modeling, testing price points and projecting what sort of basic cable growth was possible, given the dominance of the broadcast networks and America’s generations-old addiction to over-the-air TV. “We had to model the industry first, before we could even think about modeling our network,” he said. He then laughed and recalled: “We were the butt of hundreds of jokes. From 1980, right up through about 1985, there were regular articles in newspapers deriding the notion that an all-sports channel could be a business.” After Roger and I reminisced about our respective days with ESPN, we started talking about how many of the niche networks upon which this industry was built have altered their programming to reach a wider audience. I likened it to a presidential campaign, saying that early in the process a candidate can speak freely. It’s only as the chances of winning increase that a politician must move to the middle of the road. This struck a chord with Roger, who proceeded to wax eloquent on something cable has lost. “As the industry has matured, the operators’ margins have been squeezed and the money available for fee increases has gone down, so more and more networks have become reliant on ad sales for their growth. And to grow that ad sales number, you have to grow the ratings number.” The process, he says, has resulted in erstwhile niche networks pursuing “audience tonnage… What you end up with at the end of the day is a lot of guys doing the same thing.” He cited reality and crime shows which, because of their broad appeal, now seem to end up on networks across the board, regardless of what the original programming mission may have been. “That’s a shame,” he said, adding: “I think that negates the original premise—and the original promise—of cable TV.” I then asked Roger, given his track record as a programmer—and understand his rags-to-riches stories include ESPN, SPEED, OLN and a number of regional sports nets—why would he want to play wet nurse to yet another net near the bottom of the food chain? “Because I love this business and I’m too young to retire—or at least I tried that once and it didn’t work.” So what does Roger Werner, the man who helped pour the foundation upon which the powerful ESPN brand was built, think his legacy will be? “I look back and I take great pride in the number of jobs we created. I think of the number of kids who can now make a living at competing in sports like snowboarding, and surfing, and yacht racing, and motor racing and aerobatic flying—not just baseball, basketball and football. That’s what I’m most proud of. What we’ve done in the past 27 years is create tremendous economic opportunity.”

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