Original fare taps niche

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Prime-time cable TV may be going to the dogs, and sharks, for that matter, as basic cable networks continue to feed viewers and advertisers a steady diet of original programming.

Documentaries and reality-based shows from Animal Planet's "The Crocodile Hunter" to the Learning Channel's "Maternity Ward" are among those shows finding a niche audience.

Cable networks have tripled spending on original programs compared with five years ago, according to media data group Paul Kagan Associates. By the end of this year, cable networks are projected to have spent $3.54 billion on all original programming in 2000, or 55.6% of their total programming budget. For 2001, the projection is $3.97 billion, or 56.7%.


Discovery Channel had been producing original cable programs long before Sarah Jessica Parker donned her first pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos for HBO's hit original series "Sex & the City." However, getting audiences and advertisers as excited about sharks as they are about randy New Yorkers took some creativity.

"Shark Week Uncaged," which included the program "Sharks 3-D," debuted on Discovery Channel the week of Aug. 13. The channel entered into a cross-promotional partnership with LensCrafters, offering viewers free co-branded 3-D glasses that were needed to see the onscreen special effects that virtually brought sharks into viewers' living rooms.

"It was a marketing partnership that offered a win-win situation for all," says Ian Parmiter, VP-advertising sales, marketing and partnerships for Discovery Networks U.S. LensCrafters saw its in-store traffic increase, while "Shark Week" bit into prime-time competition.

"Raising the Mammoth," a March Discovery Channel special, had two global sponsors: Ford Motor Co. and Computer Associates. "Mammoth" captured a 7.8 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research, and became the network's second-highest rated cable documentary, surpassed only by April's "Walking With Dinosaurs," which received a 7.99 rating.

"Fascination and curiosity about extinct creatures has always been with us," says Mike Quattrone, exec VP-general manager for Discovery Channel, which will air a sequel on the 20,000-year-old Siberian heavyweight in March. "For adults as well [as children] that fascination still lives on."

Animal Planet toys, apparel and other products inspired by "The Crocodile Hunter" are already on thousands of Christmas wish lists. The network, which currently offers 80% original programming in 57.7 million homes, has partnered with Toys "R" Us, Kids "R" Us and Babies "R" Us stores.

The History Channel attracts a mostly male audience between the ages of 25-54. The network has produced a stream of highly acclaimed specials, such as August 1999's "The History of Sex."


"The network is well-defined," says Susan Werbe, VP-historical programming. "You know History Channel is going to be showing documentaries that inform and entertain at the same time."

The History Channel, part of A&E Television Networks, spends anywhere from four to 16 months producing what it calls quality and responsible programming.

A&E, which has been on the air since 1984, aired its highest-rated episode of "Biography" Jan. 16. It featured a candid interview with Oprah Winfrey and earned a 6.4 prime-time rating.

A multimedia ad campaign including print and TV promoted the Ms. Winfrey interview, but CarolAnne Dolan, VP-documentary programming and administration for A&E, says it was the subject matter that put the episode over the top. "Oprah allowed us access to her life."

Celebrity hosts, glamorous locales and real-life dramas are some of the reasons that newer networks such as The Travel Channel, The Learning Channel and The Health Channel, all part of Discovery Networks, are making names for themselves.

"Viewers go away with a knowledge about places after watching us," notes Steve Cheskin, senior VP-general manager at Travel Channel, which is currently available in 47 million homes.

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