Building the sked: Rick Holzman, Animal Planet

January 1, 2008

Rick Holzman
Senior vice president of programming and scheduling,
Animal Planet

Animal Planet’s Rick Holzman recognizes how a single hit show can drive scheduling throughout the channel. ‘Our strategy is to find our one best shot in our current slate of programs, identify what our lead show is, identify where our maximum opportunity is for that one show, and then build out around it. Because if you’re lucky, you have that one show.’

For Animal Planet, that one show is Meerkat Manor, which has been a big Friday night success and forms the center of this strategy. ‘What we’ve decided to do is take that Friday night where we’ve made a foothold and expand the footprint,’ says Holzman. In November, Meerkat handed off to Orangutan Island, which in turn will be followed by Escape to Chimp Eden in February. Holzman will also expand the footprint further by introducing a new docusoap, Lemur Kingdom, which will precede Eden. Later quarters will follow a similar pattern with each series working to maintain the viewer loyalty built up by Meerkat. Holzman’s aim is ‘to really own Friday night as an environment, and to get it on people’s radar. It’s all built around: ‘We’ve got our foot in the door in, how do we push further in?”

If you’ve got a show you believe in, but it’s not working in the time slot, unfortunately you need to rethink the whole night. Because this is one part art and one part science. Great show, wrong night can mean the death of a show. You have to know which shows you believe in and figure out how to give them a second chance

Holzman also uses ‘prepeats’ – airing the previous week’s episode first – to keep viewers, and will run a stack of six at key plot points, all in an effort to ensure that once viewers come to the channel, they’ll stay. ‘The beauty of this is when you do it right, you look down at your watch and say ‘I can’t believe I just watched for four hours.”

In the past the network has shown many ‘lovingly commissioned one-off passion projects,’ according to Holzman. He sees his role at Animal Planet as shepherding these commissions into a strand that can develop viewer loyalty. He cites Jessica the Hippo, which debuted in November, as an example. ‘We’ll go out and find and commission one-offs that also have that same flavor and we’ll ultimately build them together into a strand where we can run like-themed programming in the same time slot. You’re building an environment for your viewer – you are telling them explicitly or subliminally that they know what they are going to get there, at a certain slot, at a certain time on a certain day.’

While the channel has a 25-to-43 demographic, it is focussing on 35 to 49, with a slight female skew. Since joining Animal Planet in November, Holzman has begun carving up nights to have ‘certain pyschographic and demographic skews.’ Over the course of a week the channel is appealing to a wide variety of viewers, but different nights have a noticeably different feel. Nights can vary from Sunday’s big, glossy, blue-chip feel to Tuesday’s ‘heavier, adrenaline, trepidation-filled night’ targeted at males.

We’re spending a lot of time and effort right now trying to understand audience needs more. People come to us at a certain time of day with a different entertainment or informational need. People tune to you because you’re either a counter-programming alternative or a destination for something specific. Once you’ve made that connection with the viewer, you’d better think about what your next show is

Holzman works closely with colleagues across departments in realizing this vision for the channel. ‘We have a development department, a production department and a programming/scheduling department that can literally finish each other’s sentences now. We know each other’s business, wants, needs and tastes so well that I think you’re going to see a much more cohesive and coherent commissioning and developing strategy.

‘We are a place for all things animal. That means everything from domestic pets to the Serengeti. That obviously appeals to a wide range of people and it’s our mission to satisfy that wide range,’ says Holzman. ‘Historically, that great strength can also be a weakness. If you stand for everyone then you stand for no one. What we’re striving to do right now is to really organize our programming in a way that makes sense to our viewers.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.