Squawking With the Animals

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The news is not good. It is ovarian cancer, and it is inoperable. Listening to the sympathetic doctor, the woman who brought her stricken friend here now has a job to do: explain death to her own daughter. She goes into the lobby and finds the girl. And...sniff...excuse me...

A show that can get you to cry over a spiny hedgehog without feeling entirely ridiculous is doing something right. It's just this understanding of the connection between people and animals that has made Emergency Vets and the rest of the addictive fare on Animal Planet into a cable success story. In just over four years, the network, a spin-off of the Discovery Channel, has become available in 66 million homes; it's opening a stage show at Universal Studios this spring and sells a line of toys; and, analyst Derek Baine of Paul Kagan Associates estimates, it had revenue of more than $100 million last year.

The secret: an unashamed sense of show biz. Says A.P.'s executive vice president/general manager, W. Clark Bunting: "We're not just a 1500-mm camera talking about the alpha male and the alpha female." Animal Planet combines a sense of humor and emotion with an irreverent brand of extreme naturalism that crosses the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) with the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). There's Ian ("Shark") Gordon, who gets jaw-snappingly close to great whites. There's Jeff Corwin, who, facing angry elephants in Borneo, explains the need to stand still: "What you do privately in your underpants is your business. You don't run away."

Then there's breakout star Steve Irwin of The Crocodile Hunter, who captures everything delightful and dodgy about Animal Planet. A personable Australian with Barney Rubble-esque good looks, Irwin trots the globe to wrestle crocs and dangle poisonous snakes by the tail, evading bite after bite, narrating breathlessly and popeyed as if reading a scary story to a three-year-old. ("G'day, and welcome to the Dah-h-hk Continent!") His antics give kids--an A.P. target audience--an educational alternative to Dragon Ball Z, and he offers a conservationist message. But his show's lessons are pretty basic--essentially, "Animals can kill you"--interspersed with such arcana as the fact that chameleons change their color. (They're chameleon-like!)

Irwin's way-wild kingdom is leagues removed from the traditional approach of National Geographic, which launched its own cable channel in 10 million homes this month. The National Geographic Channel, a partnership with Fox Cable Networks, will exploit the group's brand and extensive, 35-year-old library of footage. It will also present new programs like the news show National Geographic Today, which will focus on nature, science and conservation, in hopes of providing a harder-core, more adult-focused alternative. Programming executive vice president Andrew Wilk points to the contrast between A.P.'s hosts and Geographic's star contributors, like Stephen Ambrose (who offers historical perspective on various programs) and primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as personalities like biologist Dr. Brady Barr, a correspondent for National Geographic Today and the prime-time nature show Living Wild, who, Wilk says, "does what Steve Irwin does but in a more authentic way." (Still, the channel may have learned from its competition: it has re-edited the slower-paced older films and added to the lineup On the Edge, about adventurers and dangerous expeditions, and Extreme Planet, showcasing natural disasters.

Can Geographic's hard science match A.P.'s hard sell? Analyst Baine thinks that while the newcomer is unlikely to grow as fast, there's room for both. Anyone who doubts the commercial power of animals--one of the few references we all have in common--has clearly never watched a Budweiser frogs ad. And now we have twice the opportunity to get in touch with our inner hedgehog.