Her Natural Habitat

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

Acracked sternum hurts a lot, and when Maureen P. Smith shifts a certain way in her chair, the discomfort is evident. But not for long -- her wince is quickly stifled and the pleasantly professional game face returns.

Tough lady.

Smith, 41, is a year and a half into her tenure as general manager of Animal Planet -- a decade-old subsidiary of the Discovery Channel -- and her style is very much hands-on. She suffered her injury in a car crash while traveling to oversee a shoot in Austin. The accident didn't deter her from her mission, although she admits she didn't feel very good afterward. (The doctor says she's doing fine; a cracked sternum just has to heal on its own.)

Her staff members at Animal Planet -- whom she praises often -- are left with little doubt about how she wants things, whether it's a program, a news release or a promotional spot. Seated in her functional Silver Spring office, surrounded by family photos and animal memorabilia, she expresses satisfaction with her channel's progress but insists, "We're nowhere near where I want to be."

Although she's involved in just about every aspect of Animal Planet, Smith doesn't hop on a plane for just any shoot. But this one was special -- "Trail Mix," which is known by some in the Animal Planet offices as Smith's "passion project." (The word passion is frequently invoked at Animal Planet.)

Smith sees the show as a major step toward putting her own stamp on the network -- and just the kind of programming the channel needs to woo women and younger viewers. The two-hour special, which premieres tomorrow night at 8, celebrates the bonds between pop music stars and their horses. It's hosted by singer Linda Eder, and the subjects include Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow and LeAnn Rimes.

"Trail Mix" marks the beginning of a barrage of programming initiatives over the next few weeks, including Wednesday's premiere of "Horse Power: The Road to the Maclay," a six-part series about the ultimate competition for junior riders; a special called "The Animal Planet Sport Horse Cup," which offers a behind-the-scenes view of an Olympic-level equestrian competition; the return of Smith's old favorite, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom"; and "Free Diver," a chronicle of underwater encounters by a woman who dives without air tanks.

If all that sounds like family programming, it is -- but then, that's been Smith's specialty for years. "Part of it is, that's who I am," she says. "But another part is, since everybody's trying to go the titillation route, I want to prove that you can do it with great quality programming."

Smith spent 16 years at Fox, beginning at the broadcast network but later gravitating toward Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network, both of which she served as president. When the offer came to head Animal Planet, her husband, Jeff, told her it sounded like a perfect fit even if it did mean uprooting a family of lifelong Californians. After all, in a sense, she'd been training for the job nearly all her life.

"Growing up," she says, "my idols were Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau. And I just remember so distinctly . . . that we would watch 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom,' and I just was so drawn to that. And I know my dad was a real outdoorsy guy. . . . [We] were sort of the nature buddies. . . . And I think Animal Planet -- now it's an opportunity for me to program it for other girls and their dads, or other kids and their families, and parents and single people who don't have kids but who love that animal world just as much as I do."

'Ratings Girl'

During her senior year at the University of Southern California -- where she received a degree in communications -- Smith landed an internship at KTTV in Los Angeles. On her first day, Rupert Murdoch bought the Metromedia stations, KTTV among them. Instead of the newsroom position she expected, she was given a job in research.

She recalls: "I didn't realize it was Nielsen ratings research, basically, for syndication. But I really wanted to get into the TV business, and . . . I knew that research was an area that -- research is to TV like currency is to bankers."

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