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Animal Planet on the hunt for ratings

Net's family-friendly fare helps position as safe harbor

NEW YORK — Eager to prove that it’s not a one-trick pony, cabler Animal Planet is fortifying its programming slate.

Of late, channel has expanded into broader programming, while still retaining its stable of personalities: Jeff Corwin, Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and Pet Psychic Sonya Fitzpatrick (currently on hiatus). Nearly every genre known to man has been adapted for the animal format including talent competition, medical drama and cop show.

With 90% original content, channels maximizes creativity and minimizes risk by keeping series to limited runs. “King of the Jungle,” which debuted last week, will run 10 episodes; each installment of “Pet Star” ran for eight. Ten new series will debut in 2003-4, joining six returning skeins.”The success lies in the emotional appeal,” says exec VP and GM Michael Cascio. “It’s Animal Planet. Not Animal Channel. We’re about relationships, otherwise we’d train a camera on a box of puppies.”Net launched with a leg up. With the backing of parent company Discovery Networks, it became one of the fastest growing cable nets in history. Bowing in 1997 with 24 million subscribers, it’s already at 83 million.

With distribution conquered, net is now hunting for ratings. For the third quarter, it ranked among the top 25, between Comedy Central and the Food Network. Delivery of 640,000 total viewers was up 5% from last year, 2% from previous quarter.

Highest numbers were achieved New Year’s Day with two-hour CGI special, “The Future Is Wild,” which hypothesized what animals would evolve into 500 years from now. Net garnered 1.5 million in Adults 25-54. (Following its success, special was spun off into three additional one hours forecasting millions of years into the future.)

This summer, channel initiated its “Heroes Strip,” a 10 p.m. horizontal sked of “Animal Cops” and “Animal Precinct.” Ratings increased 53% in total viewers, with the biggest leap coming from 18-24 demo, up 127%. Revenue this year will be north of $121 million. According to the latest Kagan numbers, next year is projected to hit $157.1 million. Kagan estimates programming expenses are $45.1 million this year and $51.8 for next.

“I’m not sure that I’d describe even it as a niche network,” says Discovery Networks topper Billy Campbell about the expanded program strategy. “The thing that I love is that it’s got universal appeal, from a child to a grandparent. Everyone loves animals.”

Cable trackers are also purring like kittens.

Consultant Lynne Buening notes “It’s one of the networks that keeps chipping away at the public television domain.”

Net’s family-friendly fare helps position it as a safe harbor. To solidify its reputation, Animal Planet nabbed Jane Goodall, long affiliated with National Geographic. “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” has been resurrected and will return to its old Sunday night slot.

“There’s so little out there parents can watch with their children without being embarrassed,” says Horizon Media research exec, Brad Adgate. “And it has a very strong dual audience — it’s gender neutral. It becomes a great haven for advertisers because of all that.”

Animal’s roster of advertisers include Suzuki, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, although some of these deals were made as part of a cross-platform partnership with Discovery Networks. Kid-friendly pics “Snow Dogs,” “Ice Age,” and “Lilo and Stitch” also advertised on net. Off-network pacts include branded products at Petco and Toys ‘R Us and a show at Universal Studios.

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