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Animal Planet Focuses On The Critters

New Animal Planet chief Marjorie Kaplan is putting her stamp on the network with programming focused on animals, rather than human personalities, in an effort to lure new viewers and advertisers.

Kaplan, president/general manager of Animal Planet Media and Discovery Kids Media, is making Mondays a night of adult-focused fare. She’s commissioning more originals, with an eye to improving quality by finding new production partners. And she is shifting the programming emphasis from personalities like Jeff Corwin and the late Steve Irwin to the animals themselves as characters.

The moves come in part at the behest of new Discovery Communications President/CEO David Zaslav, who has aggressively pushed to energize all the Discovery channels and Animal Planet specifically. Animal is one of the company’s only global networks but lags far behind bigger siblings Discovery and TLC in the ratings (in July, Animal averaged 542,000 total viewers in prime versus Discovery’s 1.38 million and TLC’s 1.03 million), according to Nielsen..

“We think there’s an opportunity to make Animal Planet more must-see TV,” says Kaplan, “more hot, more socially relevant, more tuned in to the entertainment values people watch television for.”

Animal saw big ratings success with last summer’s Meerkat Manor (premiere episodes averaged 856,000 total viewers) and launched an aggressive—and uncharacteristically sassy (print ads evoked The Sopranos with the tagline “The Family Is Back”)—marketing campaign behind its Aug. 10 return.

Animal will rerun Meerkat this season on Monday nights, aiming to bring the show adult viewers in addition to the families that make up the Friday-night audience. After its run, the network will likely keep that night as a destination for adult-skewing fare, targeting viewers 25-45 (median age is currently 47).

Looking for a follow-up hit, Animal will premiere Orangutan Island following Meerkat’s finale on Nov. 2 and then move it to Meerkat’s 8:30 p.m. time slot the following week. Orangutan focuses on a group of orphaned primates in Borneo and, like Meerkat, develops each as a character: the “lover,” the “bully,” the “prankster” and so on.

Other animal-focused shows in the works include Lemur Kingdom, a similar docusoap set in Madagascar, and several documentaries, including Saving the Species, an hour special on gorilla treks in Rwanda featuring animal expert Jack Hanna and actress Natalie Portman.

Kaplan was chosen by Zaslav to replace Maureen Smith at Animal when he shook up the company’s executive structure in February.

In this spring’s upfront, Animal Planet signed deals in categories new to the network, including automotive and insurance, and a major retailer.

“They’ve focused, and they have a really diverse content strategy,” says Ellen Liu, senior manager of media buying for Clorox Co. The company is a marquee sponsor of Animal’s 10 p.m. “Heroes” block and this year expanded its buy to include The Planet’s Funniest Animals.