Animal Magnetism

Why cute little puppies and big ugly alligators may soon be taking over your television set, whether you like it or not.


Robin Dougherty
March 26, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

despite its occasional charm, the short-lived ABC-TV show "Dinosaurs" will not go down in history as a brilliant programming move. It lasted only two seasons before becoming a dinosaur itself. But one of the show's characters -- a dinosaur dad who was, if I recall correctly, a TV station manager -- came up with a programming idea that was pure gold: "Box of Puppies."

And "Box of Puppies" was just what its name implies -- the camera turned on a container of adorable fur balls. The undeniable thing about puppies -- even puppies on TV -- is that they love you without ever having met you. They hold out the promise of wet tongues, fat tummies, ceaselessly wagging tails. In short, they are a pornography substitute for the intimacy-starved. Just the sort of thing you want to tune into after a hard day at the office, after breaking up with someone or after the third time you've checked at the supermarket and discovered that they stock every variety of macaroni except the one you want.

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In fact, there's only one conceivable thing more comforting than a box of puppies. That would be an entire network devoted to bringing images of cute animals into your home.

And so I tuned into the new cable channel Animal Planet with high hopes. The network's concept -- "all animals, all the time" -- seemed to offer up the closest thing I'd ever get to a real-life "Box of Puppies."

The cable giant TCI has tried to substitute the network for such cable perennials as VH1 and Comedy Central on cable systems across the country serving some 5 million viewers. Of course, TCI's programming strategy has less to do with the emotional power of cuddly animals than it does with the persuasive power of cash. Animal Planet, a Discovery Channel spinoff, pays premiums to cable systems that pick it up, whereas the cable castoffs -- VHI and Comedy Central, and in some areas, C-Span, E! and MTV -- pay nothing.

Animal Planet isn't the only one to pay. Quite a number of cable networks -- Home and Garden TV, The Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon's TV Land and the Fox News Channel actually pay cable operators hard cash for each subscriber. Others pay cash incentives, such as marketing support or product support, in the case of home shopping networks. You may want your carrier to pick up the History Channel or Turner Movie Classics, but since those popular networks don't indulge in "cash for carriage," as it's called, you're probably not going to get them if they're not already on your system.

And never mind that a lot of communities have been able to get TCI to reinstate VH1 and Comedy Central. The TCI maneuver is merely the first time a multisystem company has pulled this trick. It's already a common tactic at the local level. As growth of the cable audience starts to slow down, we can expect similar sleights of hand from other cable giants like Time Warner and Cablevision. As one cable insider told me, "Everybody wants to follow suit."

All this big-money maneuvering brings me down a bit. And so, unfortunately, does the reality of Animal Planet, as I can report after an unscientific grazing period of several weeks.

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For one thing, if you tune in during prime time, there's not much adorableness to be had. Those hours are reserved for creatures that are decidedly uncute and uncuddly. Pigeons? Barnacle-encrusted whales? No, thanks. And sometimes a species with potential cuteness is exploited for violence, as when baby turtles are seen to be racing to the sea before being picked up by vultures and cracked open for lunch. If I wanted that sort of thing, I could tune into the Fox Network during sweeps.

On Animal Planet, alas, heartwarming tail-waggers are reserved for daytime hours. I'm not sure what the marketing strategy is here. Is it that people who are at home during the day obsess about their pets, while those who watch in prime time prefer to see Bambi's cousins devoured by ravenous hyenas? In any case, the nearest equivalent to "Box of Puppies" is "Pet Connection," a half-hour advice show starring Dr. Bernie Pukay. (Why does your puppy bite? Tune in and find out.) Then there's "Pet Crafts," a segment of another show, in which you can learn how to make festive litter boxes for your cat. Right.

I have yet to stumble upon "Human Nature," an evening show hosted by Olivia Newton-John, or "Wild Guide," which reportedly features "the late Margaux Hemingway." But I feel confident in asserting that the highlight of Animal Planet is its daily look behind the scenes at "The New Adventures of Lassie." Yes, the collie wags again, and if you tuned in earlier this month, you now know that "not every dog can be Lassie."

When it comes to Animal Planet, I'm really less concerned with cable politics than with figuring out just what is it about this programming concept that the TCI powers that be think is so viewer friendly. Can furry tarantulas and wild caribou make up for the fact that some viewers now can't get "The Tick," "Ab Fab" reruns, or music videos? Could a show called "Crocodile Hunter" replace "The Daily Show" or "TV Nation"?

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Well, not every cable program deserves to be watched. If Animal Planet wants to attract a sizable audience, it's got to avoid those shows featuring scuba divers using themselves as shark bait. Think warm, cuddly. Think bunny slippers. To that end, I'm submitting some programming suggestions for Animal Planet.

Here are some titles. You come up with the content: "Sleeping Kittens," "Nursing Piglets Making Barely Audible Squeaking Sounds" and "Young Chimpanzees Endlessly Doing Somersaults."

And I'm always open to Box of Puppies Planet.

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Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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