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 Discovery
Communications Inc. Thanks to that parentage, it was well received by cable operators. It
was the fastest-growing network this decade, rapidly passing such seemingly unattainable
barriers as the 50-million-household mark less than three years after its October 1996
The fact that DCI paid operators up-front cash launch fees
-- ranging from about $2 to $5 for each subscriber -- certainly helped drive Animal
Planet's booming distribution.
But the channel's program schedule to date has largely
consisted of repackaged Discovery Channel fare. And some cable operators have started
grumbling. Said one system source, "I'm not thrilled with what they've been
doing so far."
Matthew McClelen, director of programming at Triax
Telecommunications Co., said the network has taken a conservative approach until now.
"The original product was not as powerful as it needed
to be," said Matthew McClelen, director of programming for Triax Telecommunications
Co. "It was a nice idea, but we need some new stuff."
Now, Animal Planet must come up with original programming
that will "deliver on the network's promise that got them the initial
coverage," says Howard Nass, senior partner at TN Media.
PONYING UP FOR SHOWS
So, in the spring, Animal Planet hired William Graff, an
executive from New York's WPIX-TV, as director of programming. It then boosted its
programming budget so Graff could put everything from sitcoms to dramas to made-for-TV
movies on the screen. Animal Planet's programming expenses could reportedly climb
from $34 million last year to $46 million this year and $62 million next year.
In another effort to boost its image, the network has
launched its first national advertising campaign, focusing on both the overall channel and
Graff will focus first on those dayparts which he feels
have the most potential: primetime; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.; and weekend afternoons. Weekday
daytime 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 to
give up All My Children or Oprah."
The network -- which will bow nine new series in the fourth
quarter, in addition to 10 returning shows -- has a solid foundation of reality-based
programs that appeal to truly hard-core animal lovers.
These shows everything from "news you can use" on
the pet-care show Petsburgh USA;to informational fare such as Twisted
Tales, which focuses on misunderstood species and Breed All About It, about
purebred dogs; to sports-based series like the Animal Planet National Dog
Championships. There are also shows in the traditional animal-adventure reality
programming vein, like Crocodile Hunter (an Australian import that's the
network'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-class
dogs 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, which
will be paired with Crocodile Hunter; Aquanauts,which chronicles the
adventures of six marine-biologist explorers; and Vet in the Wild, a spinoff of Vets
School 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 Comedy
Central 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 reality
version of ER for animals) and Animal Court (which stars former People's
Court jurist Judge Joseph Wapner), Graff said, "We want to add as many genres as
possible so we can have as diverse a lineup as possible."
However, the network won't simply add animals to the
shows as "window dressing," according to Graff. "We make them integral to
the program to provide a different viewing experience."
One example is The Planet's Funniest Animals, a
self-explanatory offering from Brad Lachman Productions, producer of Fox's World's
Funniest 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 day
care," 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 in
contests 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 dogs
compete in events like the obstacle course, whose hurdles are breathlessly called The
Great Wall and whose tunnel is dubbed The Turbo Tunnel. The production features 14
cameras, including a tunnel-cam, and employs bells and whistles such as split screens and
slow-motion instant replay.
"We wanted to get away from the whole 'country
fair' look," said executive producer Rhett Banning, accounting for the
high-octane music, the swirling lights and smoke and the announcer who seems to have come
straight from a World Wrestling Federation event.
But the grandest plans call for Animal Planet to enter the
world of scripted, narrative programming. Graff plans to buy and produce made-for-TV
movies, and is looking to build the network's library to the point where it can
present a movie of the month by next year, increasing the frequency after that.
The network is even venturing into the riskier world of
sitcoms and dramas. Dr. Dean is a comedy about a veterinarian, played by Joe
Piscopo, who has a special knack for communicating with animals. Also in the works is a
drama adapted from Jack London's classic novel Call of the Wild. Graff said
the book's longstanding popularity should help drive audience sampling.
KEEPING COSTS IN LINE
Animal Planet has taken several steps to keep costs in line
while maintaining high production values, said Graff, such as hiring production companies
with proven track records and shooting in Vancouver, rather than Los Angeles.
Although the network has not created any programming aimed
specifically at kids, Graff said: "We definitely look at everything as family
programming -- not that it's innocuous or soft, but that it has respect for the
viewers and the animals."
Toward that end, he said the network would never create
cartoons 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 he
remains committed to pushing ahead with this ambitious approach.
Madison Avenue pundits are still skeptical that these human
genres will translate into animal-centric shows. But TN Media's Nass said that
doesn't mean Animal Planet won't pull it off.
"I laugh at these ideas, but you never know
what's going to work," said Nass the success of shows like South Park and
the World Wrestling Federation. "You never know when you're going to hit a home
Added Kathy Haesele, executive director/broadcast at
Advanswers, "It is interesting programming."
The addition of sitcoms and dramas could help the network
expand beyond its core audience -- one which is as passionate the science-fiction
audience, but not as numerous.
"They're really talking to a very small group of
people," 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 offerings
will be enough to expand Animal Planet's viewing universe. "We'll have to
wait and see."
Triax's McClelen is less skeptical about Animal
Planet's ability to expand beyond its niche, due mainly to parent DCI's
formidable resources and successful track record.
"It sounds like they're breaking new
ground," he said. "Viewers will let them know if the programming works."
Whether or not these individual shows find an audience, now
is definitely the right time for Animal Planet to make a move, he added.
"They've got a few years to experiment and figure
it out," McClelen said. "We [cable operators] are locked in based on the deals
we signed with the launch incentives so they have a viewing base locked in. They can take
McClelen said Animal Planet's success with original
programming 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 notion
of repackaging Discovery fare for starters, then adding original programming as the
"They have to be successful with Animal Planet to
survive in the digital world," he said. "They have to prove this works as an
economic and programming model."