At Singapore’s historic Fullerton Hotel last February, a choice collection of Animal Planet International staffers from around the world could be found walking about the Doric columns and champagne-colored lobby. Though the setting was idyllic, this was no vacation. The group in attendance – Peter Weil, Animal Planet International’s GM and senior vice president; Stephen Friedman, VP of strategic marketing in Latin America and Iberia; Linda Chelley, VP of research in Europe; James Gibbons, VP of programming in Asia; and Petra Buchanan, VP of communications for Discovery Networks International (who recently departed the organization; see People on the Move, pg. 16) – did nothing but eat, breathe and dream about all aspects of the channel for three days.
The reason for this intense brainstorming was a desire for significant change. Notes Buchanan, ‘Some viewers really like the brand, but there was no real burning desire to watch it… We knew we could make more of an impact.’ The team was, therefore, charged with the responsibility of coming up with a makeover strategy for the Animal Planet channel beyond U.S. shores. (API airs in 72 countries across Asia, Europe, North America and South America; Animal Planet U.S. operates independently of API.)
Mission accomplished. After several months of refining the ideas generated at the meeting in Singapore, API decided its regional stations will synchronize about 80% of their programming – a jump from 13% under the old system – under Weil’s guidance.
API revealed its new inner beast on September 29. According to Weil, the revamped channel aims to connect with viewers more emotionally, has a more compelling and centralized programming acquisitions strategy, and has adopted a new graphic look, as well as its first ever global tagline: ‘Animal Planet – It grabs you.’ As part of the plan to unite its regional stations, the group also developed themes for weeknights, such as ‘On the Edge,’ on Mondays which includes human-animal adventure programming, and ‘Unexplained, Unexplored’ on Thursdays, which focuses on ‘astounding’ creatures.
Taken as a whole, the new approach aims to raise viewers’ awareness of Animal Planet, drive ratings and make it a stronger channel within the Discovery Networks International family – at the same time as it tries to maximize the dollars it spends on programming.
‘Programming is getting more and more expensive,’ notes DNI president Dawn McCall. ‘We’ve been splitting up the budget and not getting the bang for our buck. Pulling the money together gives [API] more to work with and the chance to get higher quality programming.’
For indie producers, API’s collaborative efforts should mean more money for licensed or commissioned productions. Previously, doc-makers looking to secure global deals went to the programming team at DNI’s Silver Spring, U.S., headquarters as the first port of call to pitch shows. Then, they waited – sometimes for an extended time – for the regional stations to consider the ideas and opt in with programming dollars, or take a pass. Now, ‘if we’re in, we’re all in,’ says Weil. ‘We’ll be able to make a much more significant offer than before [in terms of fees].’
With regard to budgets, Weil notes that they’ll be about the same as before, or a bit bigger. Producer sources put a one-hour primetime series in the US$100,000 to $350,000-per-episode ballpark, if worldwide TV rights are acquired; some specials are in the $400,000-per-hour range.
Along with consolidated licensing commitments, the pitch process should be simpler for indies too, since Weil, who is jointly based in London and Silver Spring, now has the ultimate say over which projects are greenlighted. He concedes that the regional Animal Planet teams have been downsized (some staff now work on other DNI brands), so unless an idea is specific to a region, it’s still best to send program proposals through DNI headquarters.
In explaining the need for change, Weil notes that the regional versions of Animal Planet that emerged over the past six years developed individual personas. In some markets, it was a family proposition, while in other markets, it was more for children. ”Animals are better than humans’ was the tagline in the U.K. at one point – whatever that means,’ Weil remembers with a laugh. What the team in Singapore was aiming for was a new sense of cohesion, a clear philosophy.
‘[Animal Planet] has been a wonderful channel in the U.S. They’ve done a great job programming it for a broad-based audience,’ says Tom Grams, managing director of the San Francisco-based consultancy TVgrams, who worked at Discovery before Animal Planet was launched and, more recently, at TechTV. Grams notes the challenge has been much more complex overseas because the channel is dealing with wildly different cultural views. Is a monkey perceived as a cute comedian, a culinary delicacy or a test animal for scientists trying to find the root causes of the SARS epidemic?
Of course, as API unifies content and marketing, it also must remain sensitive to the individual cultural tastes and perception of pets and wildlife in various regions. The channel’s ability to accomplish this may be the most telling sign of how successful its new mandate will be.
‘Peter’s job is to create a common Animal Planet out of many disparate Animal Planets, and that’s tricky to do,’ comments Michael Cascio, executive vice president and general manager of Animal Planet U.S..
Not only is Cascio’s job made a little easier than Weil’s by the U.S. audience’s sharply defined attitude toward pets and wildlife, but the AP U.S. head also deals with a much different playing field: Animal Planet U.S. will be in 85 million homes by the end of this year, compared with API’s 200 million for the entire world. That breaks down into rather narrow universes within individual countries and regions. For example, across Latin America, Animal Planet is in about 10 million households. What’s more, the U.S. channel has positioned itself as a general entertainment service that aims to steal ratings ad spend from the big guns: traditional broadcasters such as ABC and CBS.
‘Our emphasis on entertainment and pet shows is probably the biggest difference between the U.S. and Animal Planet International,’ says Cascio. The international channels opt against the theatrical-type movies the U.S. channel airs, or series like Pet Stars (think Pop Idol meets ‘Stupid Pet Tricks’) or Animal Kidding (think hidden-camera segments, practical jokes and kids interacting with animals). But, they do pick up a lot of the personality-driven shows like Steve Irwin’s The Crocodile Hunter and The Jeff Corwin Experience.
In fact, the U.S./international programming overlap is about 70% to 80%. ‘The commonality is the fundamental belief that people want to know more about their world and the animals in it,’ explains Cascio. ‘The process has changed [at API], but the level of buy-in [between U.S. and international] will be about the same.’
So what’s it going to take to sell a show to Animal Planet International now? ‘We’re talking about compelling television – a real ‘Holy shit! I can’t believe I’m seeing that!’ experience,’ explains Weil. ‘I would expect a producer to say to me, ‘Here’s the strong emotion. This is how it gets you leaning forward in your seat.”
Weil and crew deflect any questions about the channel’s economic state, and how strongly the word ‘profits’ played a part during that defining weekend in Singapore. But, Cascio provides a hint: ‘Internationally, it’s tough to be successful, and you can’t sustain losses for very long. Their charter is to make API successful.’