Rarely does a CEO hire a new network general manager with instructions to risk throwing out the baby (animals) with the bathwater. But that's exactly what Discovery boss David Zaslav did when he put former Discovery Kids head Marjorie Kaplan in charge of the company's Animal Planet.
“David's challenge to me was to take big swings and be willing to risk big failure in order to have big success,” says Kaplan, who became president and general manager of Animal Planet Media in February 2007. “When I first came here, I thought it would be a brand evolution. We decided to create a brand revolution.”
Upon her arrival, Kaplan says Animal Planet's brand was a “mostly warm and fuzzy, comfortable family-friendly animal channel” that served the network well when it was starting out on its way to gaining the full distribution it enjoys today. But ratings had been flat for five years.
Kaplan and her team immediately scoured the media and entertainment landscape for the “special sauce” the network was missing. Kaplan says the team decided that “the future of Animal Planet was not the rounded edges on the rough-and-tumble animal world, but to really go for the guts of what animals mean in the entertainment world. More guts, more entertainment, more drama. When it's scary, more scary. When it's funny, more funny.”
She started executing the new vision by commissioning an edgy marketing campaign for the third season of Meerkat Manor, likening the series' animal family to The Sopranos. She got a cease-and-desist order from HBO. But she also got a new direction: “TV with teeth,” as she calls it.
She followed the marketing with new shows that “grab you, make you feel and then make you think,” and they proved to be ratings winners. She launched Whale Wars, which centers on a boat-ramming conservationist; River Monsters, about scary fish; the behind-the-scenes Jockeys; and Lost Tapes, which explores deadly encounters with mysterious creatures that science doesn't recognize.
The result: June marked Animal Planet's ninth consecutive month of year-over-year gains in adults and males 25-54 and 18-49, according to the network's data. The second quarter of 2009 marked Animal Planet's best quarterly performance in more than five years among adults 18-49, and its best Q2 ever among men 25-54.
Even more important is that the company has been able to capitalize on its new mojo. The ad sales team has both maintained longtime advertisers and brought in new ones.
But Kaplan's greatest success at Animal Planet, according to Zaslav, is “being creative and ambitious enough to rethink a whole new brand and take the risk of unplugging a ton of shows that were too soft, too gentle and too boring, and to create a number of shows from scratch that epitomize the brand.”
To do so, Kaplan underwent something of a personal and professional “rebrand” herself when she first got to the network. “Steve Irwin's former producer told me that you cannot do this job unless you go to Africa: You don't have the credibility unless you've seen the part of the planet that is really Animal Planet,” Kaplan recalls. “So I went, and it was absolutely breathtaking. You realize how hard it is to deliver this to somebody.”
The trip is part of what ultimately led to Into the Pride, premiering Aug. 13 and featuring predator expert Dave Salmoni living with rogue lions in Africa for six months. “Through him, we have access to that world that audiences have not had before,” Kaplan says.
That's an insight that can be applied to the network as a whole, from the new Monsters Inside Me (about parasites) to its current slate. “The challenge is to continue to nourish the new audiences she has brought in,” Zaslav says.
Kaplan is game. “When you can do Whale Wars and see almost a 300% increase over the time period, and River Monsters draws 1.5 million viewers, that's information about the transformative potential of this content,” she says. “It makes you think, how high is up?”