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An Animal Lover's Dream Job

7/04/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Former ABC Family Channel president Maureen Smith said becoming chief of Animal Planet is her dream job, owing to her passion for beasts and birds.

“I grew up glued to Jane Goodall specials, Jacques Cousteau, and clearly remember sitting on my dad's lap watching Mutual of Omaha [Wild Kingdom] all the time,” Smith said last week.

Smith joins the Discovery family as executive vice president and general manager of Animal Planet.

She's filling a slot that's been vacant for six months, since Michael Cascio left.

Smith, who starts at Animal Planet July 15, will report to Clark Bunting, Discovery U.S. Networks Group executive vice president. She'll relocate from Los Angeles and to work at Discovery's Silver Spring, Md., headquarters.

Even with Smith's hiring, Discovery Networks U.S. has two general-manager jobs open — at Travel Channel and Discovery Health Network — that need to be permanently filled.

There is also a top-slot vacancy at BBC America, which Discovery distributes.

Smith, who approached Discovery Networks president Billy Campbell about the Animal Planet post, said, “We share the same vision that the channel needs a new infusion of energy and a more creative way of telling some of the stories that need to be told.”

She seems clear about her priorities. Animal Planet must increase its adult (25 to 49) audience, and Smith said she'd do that “by giving them more compelling content with better storytelling and more humor, a lot more heart and higher quality. Programming that really emphasizes the brand, which is not just animals but the whole connection and relationship between people and animals.”

She said her father, who majored in forestry in college, helped instill her love and attachment to animals.

She considers her background in family programming at ABC Family to be good preparation for Animal Planet, too.

When then-Fox Family conducted focus groups with core viewers, “nine times out of 10, when we asked them what they were currently watching, Animal Planet came up.” It was clear families were watching Animal Planet together.

Animal Planet's household ratings were flat in the second quarter. In total-day, it posted a 0.3 rating, the same as the year-ago quarter, according to a Disney/ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

In primetime, Animal Planet registered a 0.5 rating, even with last year.

Smith's TV career began in 1986 as one of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s first employees. She moved up the ranks in research, marketing, station and cable relations and primetime programming, and ended up as president of both the Fox Kids Network and Fox Family Channel.

She left Fox Family soon after The Walt Disney Co. acquired the network and renamed it ABC Family Channel, in March 2002.

Since then, she's worked for production companies Taweel-Loos and Co. Entertainment and Ampersand Media.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have already done work for Animal Planet, and look for more of that in the months ahead.

“You're going to start seeing a lot more celebrity presence on our network,” Smith said. “These are people who really are passionate about the subject matter.”

Travel Channel executive vice president and general manager Rick Rodriguez is leaving effective July 31. He's relocating to Southern California and will consult for Travel through November. He'd only been head of the network for about a year.

The other GM opening is at Discovery Health Channel, a job that Bob Reid left in January. Eileen O'Neill is serving as interim general manager.

Discovery handles distribution and ad sales for BBC America, which has been without a permanent chief since chief operating officer Paul Lee left to become president of ABC Family.

Jo Petherbridge has been the acting chief operating officer since April.

Travel Channel's numbers are on an upswing. In total day for the second quarter, its ratings jumped a whopping 100%, to a 0.2 from a 0.1, according to Nielsen. In primetime, Travel Channel was flat, with a 0.4 rating.

Discovery Health Channel posted a total-day second-quarter rating of 0.1, the same as a year ago, but was up 50% in primetime, to a 0.3 from a 0.2 a year ago, according to Nielsen.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this report.

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