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Trips to the other side

Travel Channel is taking on a decidedly door-creaking, otherworldly tone. Where once all the programs seemed to feature intrepid voyagers demonstrating their derring-do by eating fried lizard in some Third World village, there are now ghosties, ghoulies and other spooky things.

Take UFOs: Down to Earth, a three-part series blocked across prime time on a recent Sunday night. At one point, a scientist is shown re-creating the dissection of one of the infamous Roswell, N.M., "aliens." On Travel Channel Secrets the previous night, the network's cameras roamed the halls of Alcatraz with a psychic, who at one point in the tour reported feeling very cold and hostile. On other nights, Places of Mystery featured a haunted bed-and-breakfast and showcased the Salem witchcraft legend. Also, the mystery of the Shroud of Turin was recounted.

"I'll tell you how all of those things fit," says Steve Cheskin, new senior vice president and general manager of the Travel Channel. "When you go there, you want to know about the history of the place."

But a guy dissecting an alien?

"Let's say we're developing a show like that," he answers. "Say Roswell would be a place where people would go. We'd tell about the town but also the story that makes Roswell a tourist destination."

Cheskin acknowledges that Travel's foray into the paranormal is a huge departure from the travelogue shows of yore. Those programs were predicated on the belief that travelers would watch Travel Channel. They don't, he notes.

"This is not for people who travel a lot but for people watching television. People who spend a lot of time traveling don't spend a lot of time watching TV. We want to reach and entertain armchair travelers," he explains. "I've been at Discovery 15 years, six of those at TLC. I learned about what works in ratings. The word 'mystery' is a good word; 'secrets' is a good word. [They imply] that you're going to deliver something they didn't know before."

Cash flow and ratings imply that the channel needs to deliver something it hasn't before. Though one of the fastest-growing networks in terms of distribution, more than doubling in the past five years, Travel Channel has never generated positive cash flow, according to Paul Kagan Associates. Prime time ratings have hovered around 0.3 for the past three quarters, and Lonely Planets, the travelogue show previously stripped across the week at 8 p.m., has been slowly eroding, averaging a 0.2 rating/88,000 households last quarter. UFOs, on the other hand, pulled in a 0.6/271,000 on July 23.

However, as with all programming repositionings, Travel risks losing some of its diehard fans. FOX Family and TNN are still trying to reclaim viewers they lost in similar moves. The tone of viewer feedback on Travel's own Web site is less than enthusiastic.

"I am so upset at the programming lineup that I have seen lately on Travel Channel," wrote one viewer. "I tune in to learn about exciting, exotic travel destinations. I have a remote, for God's sake, and I know what channel is the History Channel."

Wrote another: "I recently saw the Shroud of Turin on the Travel Channel. What does this have to do with traveling?"

Despite the recent infestation of things unknown, Travel is not going full tilt into Twilight Zone territory, Cheskin says. "We will not have a predominance of ghosts, but there will be a mix."

For example, less mystic Travel Channel Secrets will feature Harrods Department Store in London; Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.; and the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack era. But once more redefining "travel," in the fourth quarter, the network will offer a World's Best series featuring the top 10 of everything from roller coasters to romantic getaways to weather furies.

Then, in early 2001, Patty Hearst will talk about her life as an heiress as she hosts a tour of the family castle.