Creative twists and characters work for Animal Planet

During Silverdocs, realscreen met up with Animal Planet director of development Sara Helman, who says when pitching to the network, keep its new tagline, 'Surprisingly Human,' in mind.
July 5, 2010

Via its new tagline, ‘Surprisingly Human,’ Animal Planet wants viewers to know the animal kingdom contains as many captivating stories as its human counterpart. ‘We’re in worlds that exist because of animals but aren’t necessarily all about the animal,’ says the network’s director of development, Sara Helman. ‘We use the animals as an entry point into these worlds to see character interaction, character moments and conflict.’

Helman lists three shows on the channel as prime examples of the approach exemplified by the new tagline: River Monsters, Pit Boss and Whale Wars. When Intuitive Entertainment’s Pit Boss came along, Helman says she’d already been pitched a ton of rescue shows, but this one was different, as it incorporated an interesting character at its center – Shorty Rossi, a talent agent in L.A. with a passion for pit bulls.

‘With ‘Surprisingly Human,’ human characters can make or break a show. This shelter is 100% different with Shorty Rossi attached to the show,’ she says. ‘I’m always apprehensive to tell a producer I’m never going to look at a show about X, especially if you’ve done your homework and you’ve thought of the hook for us.’

Helman says that many of the pitches she receives are still in the vein of Steve Irwin-styled presenting, but it takes a different kind of presenter to pull in audiences today. She points to River Monsters‘ Jeremy Wade as an example. ‘He’s really a fisherman. He’s not looking to be a big superstar, he’s looking to solve [a] mystery. That resonates with our viewers,’ says Helman. ‘They want to go on that journey with him instead of [hearing presenters whisper], ‘We’re in the bush.’ I don’t think that’s working for today’s audience. They’re too savvy.’

Helman says that when pitching a concept to her, what matters is the creative twist – even a clever title can make a difference. ‘I always appreciate it when a producer comes in and they’re a little left of center,’ she offers. ‘They think about what the twist is and I always appreciate that because I keep hearing the same stuff over and over again.’

As for the upcoming slate, the network will be debuting Taking on Tyson in the next year, which Helman says was an ‘a ha’ moment for the network. ‘We’d all seen Tyson, [James Toback's] documentary in which Mike Tyson talked about pigeons. Touch Productions’ [CEO] Malcolm [Brinkworth] had come in and pitched it to us and it was one of those things that was like, ‘Of course!” she says.

With the Oscar-winning doc The Cove airing on Animal Planet on August 27, the network is also in development on Dolphin Warriors, which will star Ric O’Barry and his son Lincoln. The program will focus on Taiji, the Japanese town featured in the movie, and Ric and Lincoln’s journey to educate its citizens and find alternatives for its economic survival, as well as spotlighting other places where dolphin slaughter is an issue.

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