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'Meerkats' Go Digital

Animal Planet debuted the sophomore season of its popular Meerkat Manor series online last Friday, one component of its aggressive multimedia promotional push leading up to the show's Aug. 10 launch on traditional TV.

The online premiere on Discovery.com's new broadband player is part of an overall network initiative to increase awareness and drive the network's brand to consumers under the tutelage of recently appointed Animal Planet general manager Marjorie Kaplan. Such plans include the late August launch of a high-definition channel and the potential future development of scripted series and movies.

“We're looking to create more original content — and that content is based on real audience insight — to be more competitive in the landscape,” said Kaplan, who was named president and GM of Animal Planet Media and Discovery Kids Media last February under a company restructuring led by new Discovery CEO David Zaslav.

The 92 million-subscriber Animal Planet is hoping that Meerkat Manor — which follows the exploits of a family of the furry mammals — can repeat its surprise ratings performance of its freshman season last year. The series drew a network record 1 million viewers for its June 9, 2006 premiere and averaged 856,000 viewers through its freshman run.

“[Meerkat Manor] helps point to one of the ways that Animal Planet can go with content — it has really strong characters that people attach to and it's very intelligently written,” Kaplan said. “When you watch that show you're being entertained as if you were watching [ABC's] Desperate Housewives, and you are learning because you're in the Animal Planet family.”

'FAMILY' TIES

Along with the online premiere, the network has rolled out an aggressive marketing campaign for the show, including a print ad spoof of HBO's campaign for The Sopranos on New York City bus sides and bus shelters.

Other promotional elements include Meerkat Manor ring tones for Verizon Wireless customers and a dedicated online site featuring several new meerkat-themed games, as well as customizable meerkat avatars and music videos.

Kaplan said the network will look to tap into Meerkat Manor's docu-soap success with several similar shows, including the spring 2008 launch of Lemur Kingdom, which tracks competing “troops” of the monkey-like animals living in Madagascar.

“You'll see us experimenting with things, but given the success of Meerkat Manor, we would be foolish if we weren't looking at other types of docu-soap strands, and we have some in development,” she said. “Our goal is to have animals be stars on Animal Planet, and that begins to take us there.”

Meerkat Manor will also be the inspiration for an upcoming Animal Planet theatrical next year, a genre which Kaplan also said the network will explore in the near future.

She also wouldn't rule out the potential of developing Animal Planet-produced, original scripted series or telemovies in the future as the network looks to draw more entertainment-seeking viewers.

Such moves could help boost the network's primetime ratings performance — Animal Planet averaged a 0.4 household rating in second quarter 2007, a 20% drop from a 0.5 for the same period in 2006.

“I would anticipate that Animal Planet has a lot of permission [from viewers to air scripted content], but I think we want to be careful that we also pay attention to the core natural history genres that are critical for our audience,” she said.

HD DEBUT

On the new-media front, Kaplan said Animal Planet will launch an HD simulcast channel in late August. “My philosophy is that animals look a lot better in HD than humans do,” she added.

The network will also base a new series based on its popular Petfinder.com Web site in first quarter 2008.

“The goal for us is to be ambitious and to find as many appropriate audience-driven ways to build both businesses in very meaningful ways both individually, across each other and across as many platforms as possible,” said Kaplan.