This month the channel hit a formidable high mark, according to Nielsen Media Research, which estimates 64 million subscribers can tune into the Planet. When the channel started in 1996, Animal Planet was wired into 400,000 homes. The huge increase over a 53-month period makes it one of the fastest growing cable TV networks and Advertising Age's runner-up for Cable Marketer of the Year.
To get the word out, Animal Planet has been embarking on some major adventures in the promotions and marketing arena, led by Valerie Grady, the head of marketing for Discovery Networks. It will open a theme park, "Animal Planet Live," in the spring at Universal Studios parks in Hollywood and Orlando, says Stephanie Sperber, Universal's senior VP-corporate marketing and partnerships.
A Discovery Communications deal forged with Random House will produce a series of Animal Planet books. Toys "R" Us carries the network's line of branded toys and merchandise, including a new line of toys based on its popular show "The Crocodile Hunter."
There's even a "Crocodile Hunter" movie scheduled as a summer 2001 release. Animal Planet has also partnered with the Humane Society of the U.S. on an animal rescue vehicle that is dispatched to disaster areas to save animals in trouble. Between floods and hurricanes, the trailer travels around the country promoting animal health issues and the work of the Humane Society and Animal Planet. "When you see this big rescue vehicle," says Ms. Grady, "it cuts a mean swath."
At Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, Animal Planet sponsored this year's "Dog Day Afternoon" in which fans and their hounds received goodie bags.
BAHA MEN ARRIVE
Animal Planet topped last year's debut in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. High above last year's float was a large crocodile; this year Baha Men was scheduled to appear on the float. That's the band that sings "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
Up 26% as of Oct. 1 for the 1999-2000 season in Nielsen's prime-time basic cable rankings, the network's aggressive marketing and promotions seem to have paid off.
Last year marked Animal Planet's first national consumer advertising campaign. According to Competitive Media Reporting, the channel spent $2.34 million in total media from January to August this year, with about half of that spent on magazines such as People, Entertainment Weekly, Parade and affinity publications like Dog Fancy. The bulk of the rest of the spending went toward TV, with a mix of spot, broadcast and cable, skewing toward entertainment and family-oriented shows, says Ms. Grady.
The network had been branding itself with the tagline, "All animals all the time." It is now adopting a new strategy featuring a new tagline, "Life is better with animals." It was developed by former Ogilvy & Mather executive Jim Jenkins and his creative and production company Hungry Man, New York.
"This new positioning really sums up the scope and range of what the network is all about," says Ms. Grady. "It also gives us that emotional resonance." Ms. Grady would not quote billings figures for the campaign but did say it would be a "multimillion dollar effort."
Animal Planet started as a digital service that fed natural history documentaries produced by parent Discovery Communications to cable carriers. The service was so successful that it conducted research with consumers and cable operators regarding the feasibility of the service expanding into a channel on its own.
"I went back to my management," says W. Clark Bunting, Animal Planet's exec VP-general manager, and the man largely responsible for the channel's phenomenal growth, "and told them, I actually think we can make this thing go. But it's not going to be just natural history documentaries. We really need to tap into viewers' heads as well as their hearts."
The branding campaign positioned the channel as a family-based entertainment channel. "We realized that we could have fun with this," he says. "From a branding point of view we had a lot of bandwidth and `brand width' to play with."
When the network finally premiered in June 1996, the critics were skeptical. They expected the channel to be nothing more than a 24/7 version of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," a popular show from the 196os that featured primitive documentaries about animals in the wild hosted by Marlin Perkins, a gray eminence who sported safari outfits.
"Cable has been organized around genres, news, weather, sports, movies," says Mr. Bunting, "so what we said is that the editorial spine for Animal Planet is people's relationship with animals. We are genre neutral. We can have a natural history documentary, a game show or a movie. Our shows can be any genre, as long as the organizing principle remains people's relationship to animals."
One of Animal Planet's first programs was "Emergency Vets," an animal version of an emergency room show in a veterinary hospital in Colorado. The popular program, which documents the true-life drama of veterinarians at Alameda East, broadcast its 100th episode in September. Four years ago the channel introduced a married couple, Steve and Terri Irwin, who took viewers on adventures with Komodo dragons, sharks and crocodiles. That show became "The Crocodile Hunter," one of the most popular shows on cable.
"Crocodile" is so contagious, host Steve Irwin has been spoofing his program in spots for Pentax cameras and Federal Express. Earlier this year, the network touted "Croc Week," a week featuring the "Crocodile" TV show, in a rich e-mail that included a teaser of the show. And the show's line of toys distributed via Toys "R" Us have been selling well.
NOW A GAME SHOW
Animal Planet also recently broke into the lucrative world of game shows with "You Lie Like a Dog," a canine version of "To Tell the Truth" in which real pet owners, experts and imposters try to stump a celebrity panel. The channel is also planning "Shark Gordon," a show hosted by biologist Ian Gordon.
Next year, Animal Planet will introduce "The Jeff Corwin Experience," starring a biologist on expeditions to places like Borneo. "It's kind of fun to look back on that 1996 and 1997 business plan," says Mr. Bunting. "At the time we thought we might be in 20 or 21 million households today. We're actually closing in on 66 million."