Animal Planet spins into Asian markets

First BBC/Discovery joint venture since agreement in April

NEW YORK — Discovery Communications and BBC Worldwide will launch Animal Planet in Asia on June 26, the first formal joint venture of the two companies since they signed their global-partnership deal three months ago.

“We have no hard subscriber count yet,” said Donald Wear Jr., president of Discovery Networks Intl. in a telephone hookup with reporters. “But Animal Planet is the fastest-growing cable network in the U.S.,” having rocketed to 40 million subscribers since it kicked off in October 1996. One of the reasons for its phenomenal growth, sources say, is that Discovery paid cable operators generous fees to roll it out quickly to their subscribers.

Wear said Discovery hopes to reach 1 million subscribers in the 20 major Asian markets by the end of the year even though the audio of Animal Planet will be in English, at least for the time being.

“We have an efficient cost infrastructure in Singapore that will allow us to transmit Animal Planet at manageable costs,” he said, citing two 24-hour networks that the partnership already has up and running in Asia: Discovery Channel and BBC World.

The economic crisis in Asia doesn’t faze Wear. “Where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity,” he said. “Operators in Asia are looking for reliable service pro-viders and now is the time for us to strike.”

Sources say another reason for the timing of the Asian Animal Planet is that NBC’s Asian operation is in disarray. “We’ll be competing for those subscribers,” said Wear, referring to NBC’s attempt to shift the subscribers over to the National Geographic channel, which NBC has an equity stake in.