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Ripple Effects Of Merger Hit Versus

One of the many expected ripples from the nowcompleted Comcast/NBC Universal merger is a sea change at Versus. Industry insiders expect big changes at the sports network that has its roots in outdoor programming, but is now under the command of Dick Ebersol and NBC Sports.

“There is no way that outdoors continues to the level it was,” says one media executive in the outdoor space. “I don’t think Dick Ebersol is going to want it in primetime...[NBCU has] a big hockey package, and if they go after another sports package, are those guys going to want to share that package with shows about deer getting hunted?”

Versus has enjoyed solid ratings in its non-outdoors event coverage. The NHL All-Star Game, which aired on the network Jan. 30, averaged 1.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched All-Star game in Versus’ history. Last summer, coverage of the Tour de France averaged 456,000 viewers, down from 2009 but up 70% from 2008. The network posted a record $65 million in operating cash ! ow for 2010, according to Bloomberg.

Yet Versus executives are not ready, at least publicly, to diminish the relevance of outdoor programming to their brand. “It’s something that’s an important part of this channel, it’s part of the DNA,” says Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and Versus, noting the channel’s earliest incarnation as Outdoor Life Network. “While I think it’s accurate to say that we’re going to look to acquire more programming opportunities, that doesn’t mean all the outdoor sports programs are a casualty of that.”

It’s perhaps indicative of the shift that when ESPN chose to swim out of the outdoor programming currents last year by divesting nearly all of its outdoor content, a number of smaller programmers were happy to net some of the shows. Versus was not among them.

Ebersol this month tapped Mark Lazarus, former Turner Entertainment Group president, as president of the NBC Sports Cable Group, which includes Versus, Golf Channel and Comcast’s 11 regional sports networks. While Lazarus is known to have an affinity for outdoor programming, his boss isn’t known for it, and as one executive puts it, “this is Dick Ebersol’s network.”

As industry speculation about a change of course by Versus persists, programmers at other outdoor networks are looking for more prize catches to elevate their brands, though most say their businesses will be largely unaffected by changes at Versus.

Sportsman Channel CEO Gavin Harvey says he doesn’t believe outdoor programming diminishing on high-profile networks will affect demand for his content, which is aimed at highly dedicated and active hunters and anglers. “The fact that ESPN has moved out, and we’re not sure which direction Versus is going to go as they undergo their merger and evolution to probably a more mainstream sports network, all indications for us is all this change is very positive,” Harvey says.

If the right programming became available from a network like Versus, Harvey says Sportsman would take a look at it. One topic of interest could be programming about white-tailed deer, an area where both Sportsman and Versus programmed weeks of shows last year. “We set a challenge for ourselves to be the leader in white-tail hunting,” Harvey says. “That’s an area we’re always interested in.”

Outdoor Channel is another lifestyle network that has been aggressive in acquiring castoff programming from larger sports networks. It nabbed Mad- fin Shark, Spanish Fly and Zona! from ESPN and late last year picked up FishingUniversity from Versus. And hunting show Under Wild Skies, another former Versus offering, will make its debut on Outdoor this quarter.

“A lot of [Versus’] shows are good, and they would certainly " t on our channel,” says Tom Hornish, Outdoor Channel COO.

Mark Rubenstein, World Fishing Network CEO, says that whatever Versus chooses to do with outdoor programming will have little impact on his dedicated 24/7 " shing channel. “People thought, ‘This is a major shift in television dynamics,’” Rubenstein says of ESPN’s exit from the outdoor space last year. “They were never dedicated to it in the first place. No matter what happens with Versus, it’s the same thing.”

Altitude Sports & Entertainment, a unit of Denver-based Kroenke Sports Enterprises—which owns the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche—last month acquired a 50% stake in World Fishing Network. Rubenstein believes new capital investment in technical and operational infrastructure will help draw viewers to the network more than any possible programming implications from changes at Versus.

Outdoor programming executives say that advertisers in the space have been understandably taking a wait-and-see approach to determine their future on Versus. “I just think they’re going big,” says one top-level outdoor programming exec of Comcast/NBCU’s plans for the network. “They certainly aren’t doing this [merger] to have a midlevel alternative sports network.” And for competitive outdoors networks casting their bait for passionate viewers, that’s just fine.