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'Crocodile Hunter’ Death Rocks 'Planet’

9/08/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Several days after his death, executives and staffers at Animal Planet were still feeling the impact of the loss of animal conservationist and network star Steve Irwin.

“We’re getting by. Usually, there is a lot of laughter in the halls of Animal Planet and Discovery,” said Animal Planet executive vice president and general manager Maureen Smith last Thursday afternoon. “But it’s really been very somber. The place is still very sad.”

The star of Animal Planet’s The Crocodile Hunter, Irwin died last Monday (Sept. 4) while snorkeling in shallow water at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, when a stingray drove its serrated barb near his heart.

FILMING 'PREDATORS’

At the time of his death, Irwin was in his homeland to film Ocean’s Deadliest Predators (a working title) for Animal Planet, which planned to air the special late in 2007.

Smith said the water had been cloudy for a several days, and the production team couldn’t get the shots of the tiger sharks it wanted.

“Steve wasn’t the type of guy to sit around. He figured they could get some footage for a show with his daughter, Bindi, that was in development for Discovery Kids,” Smith explained. Manager John Stainton and the crew witnessed Irwin pulling the razor-sharp barb from his chest before he lost consciousness.

Smith said Discovery has “no intentions of ever using that footage,” which some fear could make its way to the Internet. Area police are in possession of the tape and Smith said that it is her understanding that the authorities will not release the video, other than to give it to Irwin’s wife, Terri.

According to Smith, the person people saw on TV was the genuine article.

“I joined Animal Planet about two years ago. I had always been a fan of Steve’s and he was one of the first on-air people I got to meet,” she said. “He really was the person you saw on TV, a very nice man. We mostly talked about his family and how proud he was to be a father.”

Smith got the bad news about 1 a.m. (ET) on Sept. 4. Discovery staffers made their way into the office on Labor Day, to begin work on tribute interstitials. Many others who didn’t have a particular task came into the office, offering to “just get coffee or make phone calls.”

“If there’s any good in this scenario, it has been the tightening of the Discovery family,” said Smith.

“Jeff Corwin [the conservationist who starred in Animal Planet’s Corwin’s Quest and Jeff Corwin Experience] was one of the first people to call. Some of our people who were on vacation checked in,” she said. “Our Web site has been very, very slow with all of the postings on the message board. There really has been outpouring for Steve.”

FUNERAL IN WORKS

While Irwin’s private funeral service was to be attended by family and close friends, Smith and other Discovery executives were awaiting word at press time about whether they would be able to participate in a memorial service. “The family said that will be open to a larger group; we’ll see what that means,” she said, noting that executives had gotten their passports in order in preparation for making the trip to Queensland.

That ceremony is expected to occur within the next week or two.

Irwin will still have a presence on Animal Planet even though The Crocodile Hunter has been out of production since 2004. The network will continue, as it has for the past two years, airing the show at 6 p.m. That time period is also accommodating installments of other Irwin-related fare under such banners as The Croc Files and The Crocodile Hunter’s Diaries.

Last November, Animal Planet premiered a new six-episode show, New Breed Vets, in which host Irwin shined the spotlight on zoo veterinarians who worked on everything from “elephants and lizards with broken legs to camels with toothaches,” said Smith.

Sister service Travel Channel last month completed runs of a pair of specials: Steve Irwin’s Great Escapes: U.S. National Parks and Steve Irwin’s Great Escapes: National Parks Down Under, which premiered on that network in April and June, respectively.

Smith said that in addition to Ocean’s Deadliest Predators, which has been scrapped, and the Discovery Kids show with his daughter, there had been plans for other projects. “We had just talked about another special and the development of a 13-part series,” she said.

ON-AIR TRIBUTES

As for tributes, Animal Planet is continuing to run a pair of interstitials, featuring Irwin and his words, and is looking to produce more with comments from others.

A mini-marathon of Crocodile programming was slated to run yesterday (Sept. 10) from noon to 6 p.m., with an all-day marathon in the works for the following Sunday. Internationally, Smith said Animal Planets in other nations had or planned to air their own marathons.

Further out, Animal Planet might create a tribute program that could air worldwide.

“That’s still to be determined if Terri wants to,” Smith said. “John Stainton has offered to produce it, and we’d only do it if he were involved.”

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