Everyone's Gone to The Movies


I have a pet peeve … literally. One recent Saturday night, I was scrolling through the channels with my 7-year-old daughter, when she quickly grabbed the remote out of my hand and stopped on Animal Planet.

But instead of watching cute meerkats from Animal Planet’s popular original series Meerkat Manor, she sat down quietly at the TV to watch … a movie. Stuart Little, to be exact.

In fact, Animal Planet offers movies every Saturday night, to complement the original documentaries and specials the network is famous for. But it’s not just Animal Planet that has decided to go Hollywood.

Other networks like TV Land, Nick at Nite and The History Channel are airing theatrical films alongside brand-familiar shows like Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show and Cities of the Underworld, respectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Hollywood hater. I like watching classic science-fiction movies like Planet of the Apes just as much as anyone else. But watching Charlton Heston melt down on the beach at the end of that movie on History, and not Sci Fi Channel, just doesn’t seem right.

For networks such as Animal Planet and TV Land, airing generic Hollywood movies that you can pick up at any Blockbuster store or have delivered to your mailbox by Netflix somewhat diminishes the sanctity of the brands. Both networks built their brands through original programming or rare acquired classics that can’t be seen anywhere else, after all.

And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“Branding-wise, the old idea that a television channel was one kind of thing and you knew you could get it there is damaged by the fact that you’re seeing other movies that you can see on VCR or reruns on other channels,” said TV historian Robert Thompson.

I understand the rationale for adding theatricals: Movies generate ratings. According to Variety and based on Warner Bros. studio research, 80% of the top 100 programs on USA, TNT and TBS over the last two seasons were movies. So for networks such as TV Land and Animal Planet, which averaged primetime household ratings of 0.8 and 0.5 in first-quarter 2007, respectively, airing popular movies that fit their respective brands, like Caddyshack or Stuart Little, is a virtual no-brainer.

On July 1, Nick at Nite drew a 2.6 household rating and 3.5 million viewers for its prime time telecast of the 1970s musical hit Grease. The John Travolta-Olivia Newton John ode to the ’50s also more than doubled Nick at Nite’s 1.1 primetime second-quarter average.

But Nick at Nite has been running movies since last February — its viewers are beginning to get used to seeing two-hour films squeezed between episodes of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

It’s taking more time for TV Land and Animal Planet viewers to embrace the genre. TV Land’s destination Friday movie night is averaging a 0.3 rating since its April launch, down 30% from the network’s 0.5 primetime rating for the quarter. Animal Planet’s movies are performing slightly better, averaging 506,000 viewers compared to the network’s second-quarter primetime average of 525,000 watchers.

Much like Nick-At-Nite, viewers will eventually succumb to watching movies on Animal Planet and TV Land, and ratings for such programming will most likely increase over time. But it’s unclear whether those movies add more to those networks’ brands than just a ratings hit.

With scores of premium movie channels and basic-cable networks airing every bad Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, Sally Field tear-jerker and Bruce Lee martial-arts flick ad nauseum, it’s somewhat of a relief to turn to Weather Channel, Fine Living or DIY to see non-movie content 24 hours a day.

Thus far, those networks have resisted the bright lights of Hollywood and have stuck to their tried-and-true reality, documentary and informational programming. But given the ratings appeal of Hollywood movies, is it only a matter of time before we see The Day After Tomorrow on Weather, Are We Done Yet? on HGTV or The 40-Year Old Virgin on Discovery?

(OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but you have to admit there’s definitely some discovery going on in that movie.)

Executives at The Weather Channel, Scripps Networks and Discovery Networks say no, but I’m still wary. I’ll know the tide has changed forever when the staple of Discovery’s annual Shark Week programming is Jaws.

Unless Animal Planet takes the first bite out of that big fish franchise.