Cable network greenlights four new series

Animal Planet will boost its programming budget 14% this year to $93.4 million, starting with a greenlight for four primetime series scheduled to begin airing in the second quarter and continue into next year.

Exec VP-general manager Maureen Smith said the network is seeking to build on its recent ratings momentum. It’s coming off a solid 2006 in which its primetime Nielsen average grew to 600,000 total viewers, 6% up on a year earlier. In its target demo of adults 25-54, the net jumped 5%.

The four new projects:

  • “Spring Watch USA” follows mammals, birds and insects as they adjust to the unfolding of spring. Painless Prods. will film each of the six hourlong episodes close to airdate, with Jeff Corwin and Vanessa Garnick as the hosts. It’s based on a BBC series.

  • “Divine Canine” zeroes in on a group of Eastern Orthodox monks in upstate New York who have become celebrated for raising and training dogs. People with dysfunctional dogs from all over the country take them to the monks, who cure the animals through behavioral discipline and, spiritually, by putting the fear of God into them. Rivr Media will do 16 half-hours in the first cycle.

  • “Twisted Creatures” employs the latest in CG effects to conjure up mythical beasts in 13 half-hours produced by Evergreen Films. The griffin (half eagle, half lion) is the first subject.

  • “Predator vs. Prey” sees animal expert Dave Salmoni go out into the field and study the interaction of such natural enemies as grizzly bears and elk. Producer Triosphere will do four hours to run as quarterly specials, beginning in midsummer.

Among Animal Planet’s most popular continuing shows are “Wild Kingdom,” “Meerkat Manor,” “Animal Planet Safari” and the one-hour “Prehistoric Park” specials.

Smith said she’d like to buy rerun series, but the networks are not commissioning animal-themed series like the old “Lassie,” “Rin Tin Tin,” “Flipper” and “Gentle Ben.”

Animal Planet rarely buys theatrical movies, springing for “Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course,” starring the late Steve Irwin, mainly because Irwin’s weekly series was a staple of its schedule.

Smith said purchasing the rights to a theatrical movie like “March of the Penguins” would be so expensive that she’d rather use the money to produce original series.

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