In fall 1995, a surfing enthusiast named Al Gosling showed up at Monte Carlo’s sports program market Sportel with a new distribution outfit called X-Dream International. As the company name implies, Gosling thought he had spotted global demand among broadcasters for youth-oriented extreme sports content. Four years later, Gosling’s hunch has been vindicated. Aside from building one of the world’s leading extreme sports distribution centers, last May he teamed up with cable giant UPC to launch a ground-breaking pay-TV network called The Extreme Sports Channel, which currently airs in The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Turkey.
The 24-hour service targets 14- to 29-year-olds with a combo of live coverage of extreme events and magazine shows. Sports like snowboarding, surfing, windsurfing, mountain biking, skiing and extreme motor sports have featured prominently, and regular strands such as Not Recommended Behaviour, Board Wild and Rebel TV give viewers an immediate insight into the channel’s profile.
Since launching, the channel has upped it subscription base to roughly 3.2 million and is poised to enter the U.K. and France. Gosling expects further carriage on UPC platforms in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, but given the current pressure on channel space, this depends on the termination of existing carriage contracts.
Extreme channel space competition calls for extreme promotion, so to build awareness for ESC during the winter holidays, X-Dream is advertising on ski slopes in Austrian resorts through mid-April. Marking the use of a new ad medium, the campaign hinges on channel-touting posters that will be mounted on the poles of 48 ski lifts. The poster push will be supported by the distribution of promo tapes and free cards in the resorts’ bars, stores and ferry buses.
Branching out beyond his partner’s existing reach, Gosling is confident about finding a niche for ESC on non-UPC platforms as well. In Germany, for example, the network is available to 1.6 million homes via Mediakabel’s Mr Zap. ‘Our appeal to platforms is that we are a unique editorial proposition,’ says Gosling. ‘Most other networks operate in genres such as kids, sport or news-where they have direct competitors.’
Gosling’s ambition is not limited to channels in Europe. He is currently lining up a US$70-million warchest to launch ESC into the U.S. and Latin America. The money will be staked by UPC, a venture capitalist, and a prominent but as-yet-undisclosed third-party investor. According to Gosling’s current timescale, he expects to have launched the Extreme Sports Channel in South America by June 2000 and in North America by the end of the year-subject to financing plans being finalized. If ESC does break into the U.S., it is likely to do so with a major partner. To date, Gosling has pitched the likes of NBC, Viacom, Liberty and Fox about the prospect of entering into some sort of joint venture.
Given that his channel targets a pure teen/youth demographic, Gosling believes it has clear appeal to advertisers-and thus to programmers. He has shrewdly positioned ESC as a lifestyle proposition (‘a cross between MTV and Eurosport’), rather than a pure sports network. Music from bands such as Chemical Brothers, Offspring, Prodigy and The Beastie Boys plays a key part in the programming mix-as do designer fashion labels like Quiksilver, Mambo and Vinger. ‘Although the audience numbers are still quite small, we’ve had a lot of interest from advertisers because they know this audience is very elusive,’ says Gosling.
With discrete networks, the key is to provide clients with as much flexibility as possible. ‘If sponsors want on-the-ground presence at events and on TV, we always seek to provide that.’ says Gosling.
Opening up another key route via which sponsors can reach teen consumers, X-Dream is branching out into the digital realm this month with an on-line service called extreme.com-again in partnership with UPC. The move into on-line was inevitable given the way the overall market is moving, says Gosling. The company has earmarked U$10 million to US$15 million to back the Web-based service, which will ultimately provide everything from text-based services to live video streaming.
While delivering extreme.com via PC workstations will be one key route to the consumer, the partnership with UPC opens up exciting opportunities on broadband cable. The Web also features strongly in the company’s distribution plans as X-Dream already represents Internet rights on behalf of a number of producers and broadcasters.
As the channel and Web site continue to grow, Gosling is not losing sight of the distribution side of his business. The programming is cash-generative, and it provides a venue for promoting X-Dream’s content on major broadcast outlets like National Geographic, Discovery Networks, ESPN International and Brazil’s Globosat. Gosling also sees a role for X-Dream fare in early evening teen slots on terrestrial schedules.
The company started out representing third-party extreme sports producers from around the world, however as its catalog and broadcast client base grew, it became more proactive. By the time Gosling started channel talks with UPC in 1997, X-Dream was also an active extreme sports producer, meaning it could provide exactly what broadcast clients were asking for, and at the same time be more rigorous about the quality threshold of its program portfolio. Since launch, the company has ramped up its production activities. Typically budgets range between US$10,000 and US$40,000 per half hour, and recent additions to the lineup are Ride TV, Invert TV and Extreme 16 mm. Events in the schedule for 2000 include the Australian Summer and Winter Xtreme Games.
Production continues to feed the distribution and channel businesses, and X-Dream always seeks to form flexible rights-owning arrangements with producers. ‘We are very fair because we want to build mutually beneficial long-term relationships with producers,’ says Gosling. The company has also made advertiser-funded programs such as Drambuie No Compromise, an area which Gosling expects to expand. ‘Sponsors like to put money into sport because it is participatory. They know that people who take part in individual sports have a very strong connection to it.’