Animal Planet is venturing out into the wild, wild world of dramatic reality fare in an effort to appeal to a broader base of viewers.
Once known for family friendly shows like Crocodile Hunter and Corwin's Quest, the network is actively courting adult viewers with reality-tinged dramas like Whale Wars and Jockeys, according to Animal Planet Media president and general manager Marjorie Kaplan.
“It's not that we're not a destination for animal lovers, or pet lovers, but in order to be competitive with the other television choices we needed to make sure we were doing entertaining, competitive television,” she said. “We had to figure out how we could get people watching us instead of American Idol.”
While the network isn't drawing American Idol numbers, it is experiencing an uptick in viewership. Whale Wars, which follows the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as it attempts, often times dramatically, to eradicate alleged illegal whaling operations, became the 94-million-subscriber network's most watched series ever among its core adult 18-to-54 audience, drawing 1 million total viewers. The show will return for its sophomore season this summer.
“Certainly that is a show for people who love animals, but it is also a really competitive, must see, character and dramatic story driven series,” Kaplan said. “As a result it was the highest performing show in our history.”
The network was also expecting a strong ratings hit for the March 13 finale of Jockeys, which follows the lives of the athletes who hold the reins of race horses. The show has averaged more than 607,000 viewers in its first five episodes.
Overall, the network averaged 585,000 primetime viewers in February 2009, a 10% increase from the same period in 2008, when the network made the decision to step up its entertainment fare.
“I think we did exactly what we said we'd do a year ago, which is revolutionize the brand,” said Kaplan, who arrived at the channel in 2007. “When I came to Animal Planet, we took a look at the business and said this is a beloved brand that doesn't have its fair share of audience based on what people are telling us. Everybody claimed they were watching Animal Planet, but not enough of them did.”
Kaplan said that while Animal Planet isn't abandoning its core audience of pet and animal lovers, she did say that the network needed to find new fare that would expand its audience base.
“We went back to the drawing board to ask what we were missing,” she said. “People don't watch television because they have pets or love animals, they watch television because they love television.”
The network began to find its footing with the success of last year's Meerkat Manor. The series, which followed the exploits of a family of cute, furry mammals, drew animal fans and entertainment viewers because of its ability to build drama and “character” stories around the various meerkat personalities.
“We started to describe Meerkat as Desperate Housewives on the Kalahari, but it gave us insight into the ways in which animal content could appeal to general entertainment viewers,” Kaplan said. “It was series-based television with characters and really compelling story and we thought we had insight into what our audience would be interested in.”
To develop similar shows, Kaplan said the network has teamed up with new production companies such as Go Go Luckey (Jockeys) and 3 Ball (Groomer Has It).
“We continue to work with some of the production companies that we've been working with for a long time to help reinvent natural history content, but we've also been working with new companies that Animal Planet and Discovery have never worked with — the goal being to explore the entertainment genres with animals in them.”
But will such compelling shows turn off hard-core viewers used to seeing traditional animal fare like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and The Planet's Funniest Animals all day, every day on the network? Kaplan doesn't believe so.
She said while a show like Jockeys would not have appeared on Animal Planet three years ago, it plays to the network's core sensibilities of telling stories revolving around the relationships between humans and animals.
“There is absolutely still a place on television in general and certainly on Animal Planet for those beautiful blue-chip docs,” she said. “The goal isn't to turn away families or children, but it's about saying that we need to be something more compelling. Although it's fair to say there were some people who didn't love Whale Wars, a whole lot more people did.”