TV could be the answer to how we grow boating

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Let’s face the facts. Boat sales and participation have not grown much in recent decades. Say what you will about the potential of social media, but nothing should work as well as television when it comes to marketing the boating lifestyle to millions and expanding the boating universe.

With the explosion in cable, satellite and Web-based TV options, media consumers are literally deluged with a veritable smorgasbord of reality, game show and affinity programming for nearly every conceivable taste and demographic. From cooking shows to antique road shows to the more arcane “Hardcore Pawn” on truTV (formerly Court TV) and “Ice Road Truckers” airing on, of all things, the History Channel, there’s something for everyone, no matter the subject or pastime.

Some would say creative programming is blooming. One of the latest programs to debut to niche audiences is a one-hour game show called “The American Bible Challenge,” which features contestants who hope to win money by competing to see who has more biblical knowledge. Hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy of “You might be a redneck” fame, the show airs on the Game Show Network and is produced by the same folks who brought you “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

Not to be outdone, The Weather Channel has launched “Lifeguard,” a docudrama that follows the men and women who are called on to guard 150 miles of California coast. Sailors interviewed to comment on this new program were wondering whether Weather Channel executives will break into the program in the event of bad weather.

Like it or not, with every passing television season, Paddy Chayefsky’s landmark 1976 film “Network” is becoming increasingly prognostic, if not downright prophetic. With all of the choices that television now has to offer, one would think that recreational boating, with its built-in audience of 12 million affluent boat owners and some 80 million Americans who go boating every year, would be made for TV. But a Google search only finds the do-it-yourself “Ship Shape TV,” which, at 18 seasons, is the granddaddy of boating programming, as well as “Pleasure Boater TV” and “Powerboating in Paradise” on the obscure Sun Sports cable channel. “PowerBoat TV,” “The Sailing Channel TV” and MyOutdoorTV.com are only available online.

By contrast, on the Outdoor Channel alone there are 95 shows listed under hunting, 29 devoted to fishing, 15 dedicated to shooting, nine for adventure, six for off-road and three on conservation.

If hook and bullet programming don’t suit you, there’s plenty of evidence to show that other recreational pursuits have made it on television. For example, 120 episodes of “RV Today” ran from 2001 to 2006, “Dive Travel TV” has been on the air for five seasons, and a new reality TV show that will explore the lives of young women in the competitive equestrian world is on its way from the producers of “Dr. Oz” and “Cheerleader Nation.”

Although reality shows have been all the rage of late, anyone with a young daughter has to be impressed with what “The Saddle Club” has done during the past decade in original programming and reruns to build a whole new generation of young equestrians for what is, by all accounts, a recreation for a comparatively small, affluent group. Truth is that not long after being glued to this series for a season my daughter, Sara, began riding in earnest. Or consider the impact that “The Hunger Games” books and film have had on the sport of archery. According to the Archery Trade Association, sales of archery equipment have increased more than 20 percent in the past year, with attendance at its trade show also increasing by 20 percent.

Given that the boating industry has been the subject of numerous commissioned studies in the past 20 years, shouldn’t industry executives be doing something more along these lines to actually grow boating? If all of these outdoor pursuits have had their day in the sun, why not boating? To answer this question I interviewed Peabody Award-winning TV producer Stephen Reverand, who has held senior positions at National Geographic Television and the Discovery Channel. In 2010 he was named to the Hollywood Reporter Top 50 Power List based on his “reputation for quality and innovation … and ability to create dramatic, comedic and can’t-miss TV moments.”

Among the shows that Reverand has overseen over the years for the Discovery Channel are “Deadliest Catch: Remembering Capt. Phil,” which was awarded a Primetime Emmy in 2011 for Best Reality Series; “The Flight That Fought Back”; “Black Sky: The Race for Space”; “American Chopper”; and “Storm Chasers.” As head of the world-renowned National History unit at National Geographic, he produced “Kingdom of the Blue Whale”; “Six Degrees Could Change the World”; and “Stonehenge Decoded.”

As a matter of full disclosure, I worked closely with Reverand in the mid- to late 1990s, when he produced and I helped fund (while at BoatUS) the PBS television series “Boatworks.” Starring actor Robert Urich, the 13-part boating lifestyle series was all about the passion that different kinds of people had for their boats. I should mention that in addition to being a noted filmmaker, Reverand recently received his Coast Guard 50-ton license.

If anyone knows someone more qualified to bring a show featuring boat owners, recreational boats or the boating lifestyle to millions of American television viewers, let them speak up now. That said, I asked Reverand why there was so little about boating on TV now. “You have to ask the boating industry,” he replied, noting that it has never really gotten behind television as a medium to market its lifestyle.

“Fifteen years ago we produced Boatworks on a shoestring for PBS. It drew over a million viewers per week, cost about $45,000 per episode and was funded by BoatUS, Bombardier and the National Marine Manufacturers Association,” he says. “PBS loved it because it was picked up by 90 percent of its 220 stations, including the major markets.

“We had a nationally established foothold and were ready to produce a second season when funding from the industry fell through. I suspect some elements of the industry did not like the fact that the episodes were introduced from the deck of a 45-foot sailboat, even though 50 percent of our segments took place aboard powerboats.”

Although it is certainly true that the industry is fragmented, with a wide variety of different types of boats — from PWC to oceangoing yachts — the lack of a long-term push to grow the appeal of boating beyond its base, in which everyone rows together for the common good, has probably hindered the industry’s overall growth more than most industry veterans would admit. What would it take to get a boating program on the air today and put it in front of millions of viewers?

“As a lifelong boater, I would love to see and I am hopeful the industry would support some quality programming featuring boats,” Reverand says. “The smaller cable networks need low-cost, high-quality programs, and boating would fit very naturally into that. But getting an idea from the mind’s eye to the small screen is no simple task.” He estimates the average cost of producing a start-up, hour-long reality cable show to be anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000 an hour.

“The fact is that ‘The Deadliest Catch’ wasn’t just about fishing for Alaskan king crab; it also was about the people who do that. It’s all about the characters and the stories they have to tell,” he says, noting that boating is a social network filled with interesting people pursuing both individual and family-oriented activities. “What I would set out to look for is cultural resonance that would resonate with the viewing public now.

“It’s all about engaging the audience,” he adds. “People love to live vicariously, and there are few other activities that can deliver the excitement, the escape and the challenges of being out on the water in any type of boat.”

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of the Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originaly appeared in the October 2012 issue.

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