By STUART MILLER
Pets are taught to sit and fetch. But for Animal Planet,the task is more difficult: the network must stand and deliver.
Animal Planet was, of course, sired by DiscoveryCommunications Inc. Thanks to that parentage, it was well received by cable operators. Itwas the fastest-growing network this decade, rapidly passing such seemingly unattainablebarriers as the 50-million-household mark less than three years after its October 1996launch.
The fact that DCI paid operators up-front cash launch fees-- ranging from about $2 to $5 for each subscriber -- certainly helped drive AnimalPlanet's booming distribution.
But the channel's program schedule to date has largelyconsisted of repackaged Discovery Channel fare. And some cable operators have startedgrumbling. Said one system source, "I'm not thrilled with what they've beendoing so far."
Matthew McClelen, director of programming at TriaxTelecommunications Co., said the network has taken a conservative approach until now.
"The original product was not as powerful as it neededto be," said Matthew McClelen, director of programming for Triax TelecommunicationsCo. "It was a nice idea, but we need some new stuff."
Now, Animal Planet must come up with original programmingthat will "deliver on the network's promise that got them the initialcoverage," says Howard Nass, senior partner at TN Media.
PONYING UP FOR SHOWS
So, in the spring, Animal Planet hired William Graff, anexecutive from New York's WPIX-TV, as director of programming. It then boosted itsprogramming budget so Graff could put everything from sitcoms to dramas to made-for-TVmovies on the screen. Animal Planet's programming expenses could reportedly climbfrom $34 million last year to $46 million this year and $62 million next year.
In another effort to boost its image, the network haslaunched its first national advertising campaign, focusing on both the overall channel andspecific shows.
Graff will focus first on those dayparts which he feelshave the most potential: primetime; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.; and weekend afternoons. Weekdaydaytime is a lesser priority.
"Daytime is a very tough nut to crack," he said."There are fewer viewers and they are more traditional -- they're not about togive up All My Children or Oprah."
The network -- which will bow nine new series in the fourthquarter, in addition to 10 returning shows -- has a solid foundation of reality-basedprograms that appeal to truly hard-core animal lovers.
These shows everything from "news you can use" onthe pet-care show Petsburgh USA; to informational fare such as TwistedTales, which focuses on misunderstood species and Breed All About It, aboutpurebred dogs; to sports-based series like the Animal Planet National DogChampionships. There are also shows in the traditional animal-adventure realityprogramming vein, like Crocodile Hunter (an Australian import that's thenetwork's most popular series), Wild Rescues and Wildlife Emergency.
Some of the new shows fit into the informational category,such as K-9 to 5: What a Way to Make A Living. This series features working-classdogs that perform stunts, sniff for bombs and even work with troubled youths.
There are also several more"adventure-adrenaline" shows: O'Shea's Big Adventure, whichwill be paired with Crocodile Hunter; Aquanauts, which chronicles theadventures of six marine-biologist explorers; and Vet in the Wild, a spinoff of VetsSchool and Vets in Practice set in Africa.
OLD GENRES, NEW TWISTS
But the network is also expanding on its strategy of"taking traditional genres and giving them a twist," Graff said. Just as ComedyCentral adapted the game-show format in Win Ben Stein's Money, Graff said,Animal Planet could create a game show "that reflects our sensibility."
Building on the success of Emergency Vets (a realityversion of ER for animals) and Animal Court (which stars former People'sCourt jurist Judge Joseph Wapner), Graff said, "We want to add as many genres aspossible so we can have as diverse a lineup as possible."
However, the network won't simply add animals to theshows as "window dressing," according to Graff. "We make them integral tothe program to provide a different viewing experience."
One example is The Planet's Funniest Animals, aself-explanatory offering from Brad Lachman Productions, producer of Fox's World'sFunniest Videos. Another is the network's magazine-style show, Pet Project,in which the host (and his dog) present features on such topics as "doggie daycare," albeit with more humor than 60 Minutes.
A somewhat more ambitious project is Zig & Zag:Alpha Dog Challenge. The show pits ordinary family dogs against one another incontests of skill. But these "amateurs" join a team of "professional"dogs who are practiced in top-flight competition.
With a little help from owners and handlers, the dogscompete in events like the obstacle course, whose hurdles are breathlessly called TheGreat Wall and whose tunnel is dubbed The Turbo Tunnel. The production features 14cameras, including a tunnel-cam, and employs bells and whistles such as split screens andslow-motion instant replay.
"We wanted to get away from the whole 'countryfair' look," said executive producer Rhett Banning, accounting for thehigh-octane music, the swirling lights and smoke and the announcer who seems to have comestraight from a World Wrestling Federation event.
But the grandest plans call for Animal Planet to enter theworld of scripted, narrative programming. Graff plans to buy and produce made-for-TVmovies, and is looking to build the network's library to the point where it canpresent a movie of the month by next year, increasing the frequency after that.
The network is even venturing into the riskier world ofsitcoms and dramas. Dr. Dean is a comedy about a veterinarian, played by JoePiscopo, who has a special knack for communicating with animals. Also in the works is adrama adapted from Jack London's classic novel Call of the Wild. Graff saidthe book's longstanding popularity should help drive audience sampling.
KEEPING COSTS IN LINE
Animal Planet has taken several steps to keep costs in linewhile maintaining high production values, said Graff, such as hiring production companieswith proven track records and shooting in Vancouver, rather than Los Angeles.
Although the network has not created any programming aimedspecifically at kids, Graff said: "We definitely look at everything as familyprogramming -- not that it's innocuous or soft, but that it has respect for theviewers and the animals."
Toward that end, he said the network would never createcartoons which anthropomorphize animals, such as the classic Hanna-Barbera or Warner Bros.'toons. Nor would "we dress chimps in tuxedos for cheap laughs," he said."That's not our ethos."
Graff does not expect all of the new shows to work."Has anyone launched a lineup with a 100 percent success rate?" he asked. But heremains committed to pushing ahead with this ambitious approach.
Madison Avenue pundits are still skeptical that these humangenres will translate into animal-centric shows. But TN Media's Nass said thatdoesn't mean Animal Planet won't pull it off.
"I laugh at these ideas, but you never knowwhat's going to work," said Nass the success of shows like South Park andthe World Wrestling Federation. "You never know when you're going to hit a homerun."
Added Kathy Haesele, executive director/broadcast atAdvanswers, "It is interesting programming."
The addition of sitcoms and dramas could help the networkexpand beyond its core audience -- one which is as passionate the science-fictionaudience, but not as numerous.
"They're really talking to a very small group ofpeople," she said. Haesele said she doesn't buy time on Animal Planet because"they're priced too high for their size."
However, she remains uncertain whether even these offeringswill be enough to expand Animal Planet's viewing universe. "We'll have towait and see."
Triax's McClelen is less skeptical about AnimalPlanet's ability to expand beyond its niche, due mainly to parent DCI'sformidable resources and successful track record.
"It sounds like they're breaking newground," he said. "Viewers will let them know if the programming works."
Whether or not these individual shows find an audience, nowis definitely the right time for Animal Planet to make a move, he added.
"They've got a few years to experiment and figureit out," McClelen said. "We [cable operators] are locked in based on the dealswe signed with the launch incentives so they have a viewing base locked in. They can takesome chances."
McClelen said Animal Planet's success with originalprogramming is crucial not just for the network but for Discovery Networks overall,because the channel is the prototype for DCI's digital networks -- testing the notionof repackaging Discovery fare for starters, then adding original programming as thenetwork grows.
"They have to be successful with Animal Planet tosurvive in the digital world," he said. "They have to prove this works as aneconomic and programming model."