Animal Planet Pulling in the Viewers
by Dennis Moore
June 3, 2002
If Sonya Fitzpatrick could read TV’s tea leaves, she could already tell us whether her new 13-episode Animal Planet series, The Pet Psychic (premiering tonight, 8 ET/PT), is going to be successful.
But because she limits herself to divining the thoughts of pets, let’s ask Michael Cascio, who, as the cable network’s executive vice president and general manager, dabbles in prognostication with every show he puts on the air. Will Fitzpatrick convince viewers she can talk with the animals?
“I’m a skeptic at heart,” says Cascio, whose own pet is a Himalayan cream point cat named Moby. “But too many times Sonya will get things right. She has this magical little ability, this harmony with the animal kingdom. She is entertaining with a message.”
And that, Cascio says, is the goal of all Animal Planet shows: to explore the emotional connection between people and animals. Also understood, but left unstated, is this rule of programming: The shows must bring in viewers.
The cable channel, available in 79 million households, is a solid performer, says analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Kagan World Media. Animal Planet’s ratings have increased 28% per year since it started in 1996, says network director of communications Bronagh Hanley.
The Pet Psychic pilot, first seen Jan. 29, has contributed to that success. So have other shows:
- The Crocodile Hunter. Many who have seen Australian croc handler Steve Irwin’s specials on NBC may not realize he got his American start on Animal Planet in October 1996. Hunter is the signature series; specials followed. The Crocodile Hunter Diaries, a behind-the-scenes look at Irwin’s work at the Australian Zoo, airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT. His movie, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, hits theaters July 12.
- Emergency Vets, which runs weekdays at 4 p.m., has been following critical cases � such as the snake with the stuffy nose and the Westie that ate half a bottle of vapor rub – since 1996.
- The Jeff Corwin Experience joined the Planet series alignment in 2000. It airs Sundays and Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Corwin, who works to conserve endangered species, is shooting a new episode in Morocco.
- The Retrievers, which first aired last summer, is Animal Planet’s most successful original movie. Others, such as a Gentle Ben remake, have followed.
Animal Planet made its debut with mostly repackaged series and specials from other networks. Now 85% of the shows are original to Animal Planet, and higher viewership reinforces the wisdom of that change: More than 32 million viewers tuned into the network during an average week in the first quarter of 2002, says Hanley.
Programs in development:
- The network’s first sitcom, in which viewers can hear the thoughts of a wisecracking dog.
- Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which will be revived in September with a high-tech tone. Satellites will track Timbuktu elephants, Cascio says, and a tiny camera attached to the head of a snake will show the world from a reptile’s point of view.
Not every idea succeeds. In April, the network premiered a series that followed animals into the operating room. ”Viewers found it so detailed in the forensics of the operations that it might have been better on Discovery Health Channel,” says Cascio. (Animal Planet is part of the Discovery family of networks.)
One new show that did work is Animal Precinct (9 p.m. Mondays). Cascio calls it “classic good and bad guys” – cameras accompany New York City Humane Law Enforcement Department officers as they investigate crimes against animals.
The appeal of Animal Planet is more than “family programming,” says Kagan Media’s Gerbrandt. “It’s a class of programming that appeals to a wide demographic. … You don’t have Marlin Perkins standing on a hill pointing to the animals. You have a guy who jumps into the water to wrestle crocodiles. They have taken Wild Kingdom into the 21st century.”
© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.