Gone Fishin' (for Subs)

Norwalk Islands, Conn. - In a driving rain, my kidneys are getting pounded with each slam of the 24-foot Skeeter boat on the waves as we make our way across the Long Island Sound, one of the richest saltwater fishing grounds in the United States.

Bouncing alongside me is Gavin Harvey, the CEO of Sportsman Channel, who decided the salt water and fresh air would be more conducive to discussing the challenges of running an outdoor network. Casting but no blasting.

We’ve come for striped bass, the favored gamefish of the Northeast, and for bluefish, the toothy fighter found throughout these waters.

Capt. Blake Smith has spotted birds diving in the distance after a fishless first hour, a sign that baitfish are moving to the top from bigger fish below. After a few seconds, they move on. And so do we.

We are headed to a spot across the sound where he saw the rare species we’re all dying to see, let alone catch: false albacore.

Little tunny, or albies, as they’re called, are ferocious gamefish that can churn the waters in a feeding frenzy and strip off a line before an angler has had a chance to respond.

As the boat jumps like a porpoise through the water, Harvey, who could pass for a taller Alan Alda with less hair, begins to unspool stories from his first year at the network.

He was named CEO in July 2010, with a mission to expand the sub base of the eight-year-old network, which is dedicated to hunting, shooting and fishing. Sportsman Channel, which reaches 27 million homes, is owned by Leo Hindery’s private-equity firm, InterMedia Outdoor Holdings, which operates a stable of consumer hunting and fishing magazines and original TV programs.

The search for subs - and ad dollars - isn’t easy these days, especially for an independent network in the outdoor category. Big boats, for example, a high-end advertising category, aren’t exactly flying out of the showroom in this economy. And bigger, better-capitalized competitors, such as Outdoor Channel, are competing for the exact scarce space on basic-digital lineups.

We ease up to one in a chain of tree-covered islands off Norwalk, over underwater boulders and shallow reefs. We throw poppers, white plastic jigs and flies. Nothing.

The captain slows the boat again, but only for a moment - the birds in the distance aren’t “crashing” the water the way he would like.

Harvey has immersed himself in the business with field trips like this, even taking up the difficult sport of bowhunting for deer, which requires the stealth of a ninja. “It’s intense,” he said. And he has taken the search for subs personally, tracking leads and talking personally with hundreds of distribution executives at all the cable, satellite and telco companies “at system, region, division and corporate levels.” The network was recently moved from a sports tier to the basic digital package in Chicago, a big win he hopes to repeat around the country.

Much of the work of the Sportsman Channel is evangelism, spreading the gospel of facts surrounding the rod and gun crowd to dispel myths and make a case that the audience is more widespread than it appears.

America’s 80 million hunters and anglers contribute some $76 billion into the economy, according to the Congressional Sportsman Foundation. Quick: Guess what American anglers spend $1.1 billion a year on? Not equipment. ($5.3 billion.) Not food ($4.3 billion). Give up? Bait.

“I want people to know,” Harvey told me later, “that (1) hunting, shooting and fishing is not a hobby for American sportsmen, it is life; (2) that this category is not a niche, it is huge and there are more than 80 million of us; and (3) that Sportsman Channel is the leader in outdoor TV for the American sportsman.” While Nos. 1 and 2 are certainly true, I’m thinking Roger Werner, CEO of the publicly held, Nielsen-rated Outdoor Network, might disagree with No. 3.

Indeed, these days, even as single-sport networks struggle to get carriage, mainstream networks are starting to fish for subscribers in the rod-and-gun space: on Animal Planet (River Monsters); History (Swamp People, Top Shot); and Discovery Channel (Sons of Guns).

As we cast, Harvey explains how the challenge gets complicated. The investment of weeks of phone calls and meetings lobbying a cable operator, for example, can go out the window if the company is restructured or the point person leaves, which has happened in both Time Warner Cable and Comcast markets. “You have to start all over,” he said.

We continue to cast, but no bites on the other side of the island. The captain scans the horizon again. “There’s bait everywhere - silversides, bay anchovies and menhaden,” he said, to no one in particular. As we move to yet another spot, I think to myself that finding new subs is a lot like fishing.

Harvey, who helped transform the Outdoor Life Network into more of a sports service (under Comcast, OLN was renamed Versus in 2006), said he has big ideas for promotion (across screens and Intermedia’s magazines) and production. The network has tweaked existing shows, such as American Flyfisher, and is preparing a new slate of programs for 2012, including Dropped: Project Alaska, which follows two brothers who are dropped on a river in a remote part of Alaska to “pit their skills as hunters, woodsmen and anglers against an unforgiving landscape.”

As we reach the shore across the sound, gulls are divebombing the water in droves. Suddenly, my spinning reel starts to sing. A bluefish. Harvey’s line starts to strip, too. We’re in the middle of a bluefish feeding frenzy that lasts for a solid hour.

If only winning more subs was this easy.