Amimal magnetism irresistible to cablers, b’casters

Everywhere you turn during TV’s evening hours, you will find them. Not doctors or lawyers or detectives or whining yuppies. Not single mothers and the wacky neighbors who love them.

No, it’s animals. Once relegated to a few PBS specials about Siberian tigers and “National Geographic” docus tracking endangered antelope, wildlife programs have exploded to the point where they are arguably the tube’s hottest single genre.

Programming that documents every area of beasts and beastly behavior dots the TV landscape from the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel to TBS, PBS, the Disney Channel, the all-animal Animal Planet and the Family Channel.

But the most noticeable new animal-friendly territory is an unexpected one: network primetime. NBC boasts several “National Geographic” specials every season. ABC has its “World of Discovery” franchise. And last season, CBS and Fox joined the fray with a series of specials highlighting the predatory and violent natures of our four-legged, fanged and clawed friends.

CBS ran three “World’s Most Dangerous Animals” hours this past season. Fox drew criticism for its purportedly exploitive trio of “When Animals Attack” specials, also running a pair of “World’s Greatest Animal Outtakes” beastfests and one called “World’s Most Incredible Animal Rescues.”

Next season, Fox plans another “When Animals Attack” as well as one with the tantalizing title “World’s Most Dangerous Swarms.”

Animal TV: It’s not just for “Lassie” and “Flipper” anymore. There is, for starters, big money to be made in capturing animals running amok on film and tape. As Mike Darnell, senior VP for specials and alternative programming at Fox, points out, the three “When Animals Attack” specials averaged a simmering 20 share in the 18 to 49 demo. And in one case, the repeat scored higher than the original.

“These shows are just gold for us,” Darnell said. “It appears that any genre that works, works better with animals.” Shows centered on animals also tend to be far cheaper to produce: about $500,000 an hour for the Fox specials — half the price of a comparable dramatic series hour, Darnell adds.

Another selling point for wildlife/animal shows is their marketability overseas, points out Clark Bunting, senior VP-G.M. for Animal Planet, the Discovery Networks spinoff that can be seen in more than 21 million homes a year after its launch.

Always welcome

“There is interest in the Siberian tiger, whether you’re in America or Cuba or Czechoslovakia or anywhere in-between,” said Bunting, who points to the common language of animals. “There is no dubbing. You don’t have French directors or German actors. It crosses borders and media platforms better, and more economically, than any other form of TV.”

Another plus for the genre is that animals “won’t hold out to renegotiate,” unlike actors, notes Bunting.

Rich Ross, senior VP of programming and production for the Disney Channel — which has a pair of kid-oriented, animal-themed shows in production — calls animal programming “cable’s answer to the network newsmagazine.”

“Newsmagazines deliver ratings to the network for half the cost,” Ross explains. “Animal shows do the same for cable.”

But what is it about animals, from a viewer perspective, that has stoked such a production and programming proliferation? Why are people suddenly so drawn to watch this stuff?

“The interest has always been there,” maintains Tim Kelly, prexy of National Geographic TV, the largest domestic producer of wildlife documentary films since the mid-1960s.

“I think there is an increased yearning today among the viewer to connect with the natural world,” Kelly said. “People want something that’s entertaining, but also something that’s real, that’s beautiful, that elicits wonder and offers them good storytelling. That’s what we do.”

However, the quality-driven “National Geographic” formula may itself be endangered. While Kelly denies any problems, there have been reports that a planned National Geographic nightly TV series in syndication has been jeopardized by the insistence of distributor Warner Bros. that the show feature more animal clashes and action.

Still, there is no shortage of outlets for every kind of animal show. And viewers can’t get enough of them, from Great White Sharks chomping limbs during the Discovery Channel’s popular annual “Shark Week” to gorillas huddling against the chill in the rainforest.

Pat Mitchell, prexy of Turner Original Prods. and head of documentary programming for TBS, said her division has devoted more than 100 hours a year to wildlife and nature programming since the mid-1980s. She believes the audience flocks to these shows as a means of being taken on an adventure they would never otherwise go on.

“That’s why these shows are such evergreens,” Mitchell said. “People get a thrill at the same time they’re getting information. And animals are often more interesting to watch than human beings.”

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