King of Start-Ups Set to Get Network on Track

Bob Scanlon is something of a start-up addict. The general manager of the newly rebranded Velocity network has a host of launches on his résumé, having served on the founding management teams for Speedvision and Outdoor Life Network as well as working at HBO, ESPN and NFL Network in the early days of those channels.

“I love this stuff,” Scanlon says. “There are land mines and pitfalls to launching that only a very small group of people in this industry really know about and have experienced.”

Velocity, owned by Discovery Communications and currently with a staff of only seven people, relaunched Oct. 4 on the channel that used to be HD Theater. Targeting an audience of college-educated men 25-54 with incomes of $150,000-plus, Velocity is drawing on HD Theater’s library of automotive programming and adding new series about fishing, gadgets and NFL football, to name a few.

The initial programming slate for Velocity bears a striking resemblance to Scanlon’s résumé: prominent series include NFLSingle Coverage and Motorweek. The similarity is not lost on him, though he says he is not programming the channel for himself.

“I have a real connection and affinity for the psychographic of the target audience,” Scanlon says. “I don’t claim any special expertise. It’s just, you know, sometimes you get lucky.”

Scanlon’s first job after graduating from Ithaca College (where he was classmates with Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger—still a good friend) was at HBO in the mid-1970s, when the fledging pay TV network was primarily distributed on Manhattan cable. While Scanlon was there, HBO cut the first deal with RCA to make the channel available by satellite. His mark as one of the few people in the country with any satellite experience got him hired at ABC News and Sports, where he worked under the legendary Roone Arledge, which he calls “a great education.”

In 1979, Scanlon was one of the first 70 people hired at the just-launched ESPN, where he worked in various roles for 15 years, eventually becoming coordinating producer for motorsports— for which he won eight Emmy Awards including best live sports series, beating out all NFL and NBA coverage that year.

It was at ESPN that he met Roger Werner and Roger Williams, with whom he would go on to start up Speedvision and OLN in 1995. From scratch, the three built the channels into lucrative networks; in 2001, News Corp. bought Speedvision (now SPEED Channel) and OLN (now Versus) was sold to Comcast.

“Bob has a deep background in operations, bigger than just the technology side, but significant production and programming experience as well. A track record of success in that area was the primary thing I was looking for,” Werner, now CEO of Outdoor Channel Holdings, says of their partnership. “Bob also is just a great guy, good intelligence, one of the hardest-working guys you’ll meet.”

Scanlon’s experience programming to the upscale male audience will serve him well at Velocity, where everything will be put through a filter for men who are successful, ambitious and strapped for time. There will be no contrivedconflict reality series or recaps of what you missed at the beginning of episodes, he says, and the network will air some 15-minute shows. Even the NFL programming is what Scanlon calls a “thinking man’s football show,” focusing on game analysis and strategic rivalries.

“This adage that we’re talking to the smartest guys in the room is, I think, a big differentiator for us,” Scanlon says.

While Velocity is selling an upscale male audience, Scanlon sees audience growth in aspirational viewers who may not have achieved that level of success yet but will respond to the intelligent programming. But the channel is not looking to disinvite anyone; it may even attract women with series such as Extreme Fishing, hosted by easy-on-the-eyes Robson Greene, or a possible series following Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey as he prepares to drive the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 2012.

“No ones knows just how difficult it is to rebrand, relaunch or launch a network,” says Peter Liguori, COO of Discovery Communications. “You have to have someone who has clarity of purpose and a holistic vision to do it, and frankly, just knows how much every minute of every day matters, to have that vision articulated. These things are moment-bymoment wars. You are constantly up against the clock, and it’s a large endeavor. Bob is one of these guys who has a complete can-do, willdo attitude, and he refuses to accept defeat.”

At least Scanlon doesn’t have the problem of achieving distribution this time around, which was the biggest challenge he faced in launching Speedvision and OLN. Velocity inherited HD Theater’s footprint of 40 million households, though Discovery is of course hoping to grow that number with the rebranding. Early ratings look promising—the launch on Oct. 4 was the best Tuesday ever for the network platform in primetime among its target men 25-54 and other key demos.

It also does not hurt the network’s chances for success that its GM not only has a wealth of professional experience in its target programming but lives it in his personal life as well. Scanlon has been an instructor for the Richard Petty Driving School and even got tips from NASCAR’s King Richard himself once, though he does not get to race as much as he would like. As for hobbies, he enjoys music (he plays the drums) and owns a speedboat at his home in Annapolis, Md., where he lives with his wife.

Though his modest demeanor means he would never invite the comparison, Scanlon is truly a Velocity man.

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