Growing up in New York, Marjorie Kaplan always knew she would become a lawyer like her parents. But she opted out of law school after graduating from Brown University, “and really did not know what I was going to do,” she said.
“I remember talking to my mother — she is a very accomplished woman, and she had gone back to law school when I was [about] 7 years old; she was on the board of Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits,” Kaplan recalled. “And she said to me, ‘Sweetheart, women live a very long time. Just do something.’ ”
It was “a series of exciting somethings” that led Kaplan to her work as president and general manager of Animal Planet. There, she has led the rebranding effort that has transformed the once-cuddly family channel into a bold, adult-focused entertainment destination.
RATINGS ON RISE
According to Kaplan’s state-of-the-channel summary at the Television Critics Association 2013 Winter Press Tour earlier this month, Discovery Communications-owned Animal Planet has boosted primetime ratings for the channel by 45% in four years and is up 67% with men.
It’s now the third fastest-growing cable network with adult males, thanks in part to signature adventure series Whale Wars and River Monsters, both of which have become emblematic of Animal Planet’s “surprisingly human” brand mandate for daring, inventive, wide-ranging storytelling.
“Animal Planet was the toughest assignment at Discovery,” Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav said. When he took the helm of the media company in 2007, Zaslav looked to make sweeping changes throughout the operation, including at the animal-focused network.
“It was a very perplexing problem and asset,” he said. “It was fully distributed, in almost 100 million homes. It had a brand that everybody said they loved, but the truth was, no one was watching it. It was almost like PBS.”
Kaplan, who joined the network in February of 2007, “was really quite courageous in reimagining Animal Planet — to take a beloved brand and make it something different; to make it something that people loved and watched,” Zaslav said.
The evolution didn’t come as quickly as anyone had hoped. But about five months into the job, Kaplan had her “Aha!” moment.
“The question for me was, how do we unlock that passion in a world where people claim to love this thing and are passionate about the creatures of the planet?” Kaplan asked.
That passion was steeped in life-and-death storytelling. “There was not predation on Animal Planet, and no sex — and animals are raw,” she said. “So part of it was starting down that road and unlocking some of that; about what it meant to be a human being on a rich, raw kind of animal planet. That’s where we got into our ‘surprisingly human’ insight.”
Her creative and business executives were on board with the concept. “We made a collaborative decision to lock arms,” Sharon O’Sullivan, executive vice president of advertising sales at Discovery Networks, said. “And that was led by Marjorie. We all felt like we could take the risk and had to take the risk.”
The risk has paid off . In 2012, eight of the channel’s series delivered more than 1 million viewers giving Animal Planet its best-ever year. This year kicked off with 1.5 million viewers tuning in for Finding Big Foot.
In March, Kaplan will launch Animal Planet’s newest series, Battleground: Rhino Wars, centered on a team of elite former U.S. military personnel working to take down poachers, who slaughtered nearly 700 rhinos in South Africa last year.
THERE TO HELP
But when it comes to heroes, O’Sullivan says Kaplan is in a league of her own: “If there’s ever a situation that you need someone to come in and help you, which is what Wonder Woman does, Marjorie’s the person you want to be on your team to swoop in and be your partner in any challenge. Whether it’s creative or business, she’s the one that helps you get through it.”
At home, it’s Kaplan’s husband of 26 years, visual artist Gustav Szabo, and their two sons, Jacob, 25, and Kaleb, 20, who are the source of her strength and inspiration.
“Our house is constantly full of people of all sorts of different walks of life,” she said, “and a lot of them are artists, and I think people who are creators think differently and have different expectations of the world and different challenges in the world, so I think it stretched me as a person.”
In January 2011, Kaplan extended herself further professionally when she was promoted to president of Science Channel. The following year, she was given oversight of Velocity with Science Channel general manager Debbie Myers and senior vice president Robert Scanlon, while juggling her day-to-day duties at Animal Planet.
Asked how she balances it all, Kaplan is decidedly candid: “I don’t think you can balance it,” she said. “It’s more like running back and forth on a see saw, and so the closest you come to balance is maybe for a second you’re kind of poised in the middle on your way from one side to the other. But I think you have to enjoy the chaos a little bit.”
TITLE: President and GM, Animal Planet; President, Science and Velocity Channels
CAREER: Honed her brand strategy skills as director of advertising at Kraft General Foods, and later as VP at Ogilvy & Mather; joined Discovery Communications in 1997 as SVP of Children’s Programming and Products after the company acquired Lancit Media, where she had led such Emmy Award-winning children’s programs as PBS’s Reading Rainbow; became president of Discovery Kids Channel, then took over Animal Planet in 2007
QUOTABLE: “I am a great person to talk to if you have no idea what you want to do.”