It may not be barking up the wrong tree to suggest that television has gone to the dogs. In fact, pound for pound, there is more animal-oriented programming than ever, with cable networks doggedly adding or expanding new shows or events to appeal to puppy lovers, not to mention cat fanciers, bird buffs and monkey mavens.
Typical of the vultures of the press, we must ferret out the reason behind an increase in these shows. To paraphrase an acquaintance of one great Dane, there is method in this programming madness.
With the increase in niche scheduling and the ratings dependability of the few animal shows aired in the past, all creatures domestic and wild have the potential to become cable network executives' new best friends.
No one would discuss profits, but clearly it does not take a legal eagle to vet the bottom line. Pet-food companies, for example, know they can reach their target audience. And as the programs get wider exposure, that breeds the demand for more-varied advertising.
Animal Planet, a network that began three years ago and is entirely dedicated to animal shows, has surpassed its own expectations in terms of the number of homes it reaches.
Its plan was to be in 20 million homes by 2001, said David E. Gerber, Animal Planet's director of programming. "We just passed 50 million two weeks ago, in less than three years. That says something about the popularity of the kind of programming we're offering."
This week, Animal Planet begins 100 new episodes of "Judge Wapner's Animal Court," and USA Network, which for 16 years has carried the highly rated Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is adding a two-hour dog event Wednesday at 9 p.m., the World Dog Show.
This summer, Disney also is expanding "Going Wild With Jeff Corwin," a pre-teen-oriented show, to include programming Monday through Friday instead of just on the weekends.
On June 10, TBS started airing 13 weekly episodes of "The Chimp Channel," featuring orangutan actors parodying popular films and television shows.
TBS's half-hour show evolved from occasional three-minute spots that had aired since 1997. "We got a response from viewers who wanted tapes [of the brief spots], the press liked them and we felt we had lightening in a bottle," said spokeswoman Robin Yates.
And that's no monkeyshines, if one is to see these programs as an increasingly confident belief that animals sell.
Gordon Beck, senior vice president for USA Sports and Production, said USA Network has preempted its highly rated "Monday Night Raw" wrestling show to carry the Westminster Dog Show every February. The Westminster brings in about 3 million viewers compared with wrestling's 4.5 to 5 million, a network spokesman said.
Because of interest in the Westminster, Beck said his network for the first time aired Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in April and will carry the World Dog Show, which with its 371 recognized breeds offers about more than double the breeds of the Westminster.
Animal Planet's Gerber said the Westminster's success initially convinced executives at Discovery Communications Inc., which owns Animal Planet, that there would be a market for more animal-oriented programming.
Animal Planet televises at least four animal championships a year as well as several agility trials. This March marked the first time for at least the next two years Animal Planet will air the respected Crufts Dog Show from Birmingham, England, Gerber said.
Although the content varies from the exploitative ("When Good Pets Go Bad" on Fox) to the high-brow ("First Dogs," about presidential pooches, on Discovery Channel and WETA), pets programs often make for compelling television.
Consider Animal Planet, whose programming has expanded to include the stuff of the major networks -- court and hospital shows with life and death situations and highly emotional people. NBC may have "ER" and "Law & Order," but Animal Planet has "Emergency Vets" and "Judge Wapner's Animal Court."
Veterinarian Steven Petersen, who appears on "Emergency Vets" with his co-workers at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver, said the show's following has surprised him. "None of us had a clue what we were in for," said the 37-year-old small-animal surgeon who gets noticed when shopping or skiing.
He also was tapped as People magazine's Sexiest Animal Lover last year. "It was the November 16 issue," Petersen said with some embarrassment. "I'll remember it forever."
Besides that sort of fleeting attention, Petersen said he is most proud when he and colleagues receive a few letters every week from young people who aspire to become veterinarians. He praises the program because "it's done more to educate people about what we do than anything else."
If George Clooney's departure from "ER" was hard for fans of that NBC show, "Emergency Vets" watchers will want to brace for Petersen's absence -- he's leaving Alameda East this month to start his own practice in Reno, Nev. There likely will be a goodbye episode in the fall, he said, but "I've planted the seed [with the producers] to do a spinoff in Reno."
Judge Joseph A. Wapner, who saw his share of offbeat litigants on "The People's Court" from 1981 to 1993 (not to mention his 30 years before that on the California bench), now presides over cases involving ducks, geese, dogs, cats -- even worms.
"A plaintiff bought 175 pounds of worms for mulch, said he'd pick them up in a month and paid for them," said Wapner in a telephone interview. "But when he did, they were all dead and unusable. He dumped the worms out on the table" in the courtroom.
The litigants "do get terribly upset about their pets, especially the cats and dogs," he added.
For the record, Wapner doesn't own a pet. But he said that does not matter.
Wapner said his cases, no matter how unusual they may seem, are mostly breach-of-promise cases, and so the matters involve the familiar legal territory he explored on "The People's Court."
Gerber, who spent 25 years in public TV, at first was skeptical of the network's vision, figuring it would be 24 hours of nature programming. "But `Animal Court,' " he said, "is as far removed from natural history as you can imagine."
Animal Planet also carries fictional shows, such as an updated version of "Lassie." And a half-hour game show called "Zig & Zag," featuring agility and rescue competitions for household dogs, is scheduled to air in September.
The networks have put in a lot of production money to turn fairly straightforward events such as the dog championships into drama-filled programs that even the nonenthusiast can follow and appreciate.
For instance, there is the opening narration of the Westminster from 1998: "It's a dream of Olympic proportions," the male voice-over begins, backed by a snare-drum heavy march beat. "To attain immortality, to become a legend. Just as the world's best have descended on Nagano with golden dreams, our champions a half a world away eye a New York victory as the ultimate achievement."
"Americans have this thing about competition," said David Frei, a veteran dog breeder who has been USA Network's Westminster commentator for a decade and will comment for the World Dog Show. "They want to root for the underdog. And when they see these show dogs in the ring with this personality and showmanship and attitude, it's a canine charisma that you get excited about and want to get behind."
But Frei figures almost all of the shows' viewers are new to dog-show-watching.
"My greatest aim is to show people that these are real dogs," he said. "They go home and sleep on the couch and steal food off counters and probably drink out of the toilet every once in a while. The difference between show dogs that are trained and conditioned and groomed to perfection can be very subtle between that and the dog sitting on the couch watching us. That's the message, these are regular dogs."
The programs often are abridged versions of the actual events, paring down, for example, the four-day World Dog Show into two television hours. The content has become increasingly sophisticated, often producing Olympics-like feature stories about different dogs and their owners/trainers/breeders.
"People like stories," said Animal Planet producer Will Schwarz from Purchase, N.Y., where he is taping the Greenwich Kennel Club Dog Show. "It's the Olympic paradigm, where you have not only the competition, but also the behind-the-scenes stuff. We want to make people care about the dogs and the handlers and also feature information they can use" to care for their own pets.
Schwarz said he also is working on a segment about artist Cynthia Carlson's paintings of dogs at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art. The show will air on Animal Planet July 11 at 8 p.m.
One media watchdog group, the Ark Trust Inc., has monitored the presentation of animals and animal-issues on screen and in print and honors its favorites with its Genesis Award. Gretchen Wyler, the founder and president of the Encino, Calif.-based organization, said TV has become significantly richer in terms of the depth with which even mainstream shows explore animal issues.
Twelve years ago, "Magnum, P.I." took the Genesis Award for best dramatic television series because Wyler said it featured a throwaway line about "it's wrong to kill whales." This year she gave "Sports Night" the award for best new television series for a poignant two-minute speech against hunting for sport.
As Animal Planet and more mainstream networks grow in programming and audience, there is at least one hint of a purist backlash.
Daniel A. FitzSimons, founder and chairman of the Puppy Channel in Cleveland, said that although he likes Animal Planet, his television concept, if he can persuade a cable carrier to syndicate it, would dismiss cats, horses, chimps, worms, birds and any other form of animal -- including the human variety. All that would be left are puppies.
"I noticed an array of people at a downtown Cleveland building at lunchtime on a Friday," said FitzSimons, who sold his advertising and public-relations agency after 20 years. "People from an animal shelter put the dogs on display. So I'm thinking, it's a busy downtown building at lunchtime, and all these people are looking at puppies. You can't help but think a normal healthy human being wouldn't feel better by looking at a puppy."
Evidently so. When a one-hour pilot was aired without fanfare in Fairfield County, Conn., for 18 days in the fall of 1997, about 100,000 homes received it. FitzSimons said he received 14 calls from people who either wondered what they were watching or wanted his $25 video.
He thinks the value is its lack of intensity, its selling point is there's "no human, spoken communication."
Isn't there some barking?
"Well, sure," he said. "But it's the ambient sound of the mischief of the puppies."
Series and Specials, Herded Together
Hunting for animal-programming options? Well, it's a jungle out there. Here's an abridged list of choices:
Animal Planet: "Judge Wapner's Animal Court," Monday through Saturday at 7 p.m., weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; "Emergency Vets," weekdays at 10 p.m.; "The Crocodile Hunter," Sunday and Wednesday at 9 and Saturday at 8 p.m.; "Lassie," weekdays at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m.; "Greenwich Kennel Club Dog Show," July 11 at 8 p.m.
Discovery: "Wild Discovery," weekdays at 7 and Saturday at 8 p.m.; "The Ultimate Guide," a quarterly series, featuring dolphins, July 19; the 12th annual "Shark Week," Aug. 8-15.
Disney Channel: "Amazing Animals," weekdays at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 9:30 a.m.; "Going Wild With Jeff Corwin," weekdays at 4 and Saturday and Sunday at 5:45 p.m.; "Omba Mokomba," Sunday at 7 p.m.
Fox: "World's Funniest" (this week devoted to animals), Sunday at 7 p.m.
Fox Family: "Dog's Best Friend," Sunday at noon. (This is a 1997 Family Channel original film about a boy who talks to dogs, starring Jim Belushi and Bobcat Goldthwait.)
Maryland Public Television: "You and Your Great Dog," Sunday at 6 a.m.; "Pets: Family," Sunday at 6:30 a.m.; "Kratt's Creatures," weekdays at 6:30 a.m.; "Zoboomafoo," weekdays at 11:30 a.m., Saturdays at 6:30 a.m.; "Anyplace Wild," Thursday at 8 p.m.; "The Life of Birds," a 10-week series hosted by David Attenborough, premiering July 20 and airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
NBC: "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," July 4 at 7 p.m.
PAX TV: "Animals Are People, Too!" occasional specials hosted by Alan Thicke (next airs July 31 at 8 p.m.)
TBS: "National Geographic Explorer," Wednesday at 8:05 p.m.; "Chimp Channel," Thursday at 10 p.m.
UPN: "America's Greatest Pets," Friday at 8 and 8:30 p.m.
USA: "The World Dog Show," Wednesday at 9 p.m.; "Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show" airs every February.
WETA: "In the Wild: The Elephants of India With Goldie Hawn," Sunday at 7 p.m.; "Zoboomafoo," weekdays at 4 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 a.m., Sundays at 10:30 a.m.; "Tales of the Serengeti," July 18 at 6 p.m.; "Survival Special: Dappled Cats," July 18 at 7 p.m.; and "Nature -- The Crater Lions," July 18 at 8 p.m.; "The Life of Birds," a 10-week series hosted by David Attenborough, premiering July 20 and airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; "First Dogs," presidential pooches, July 21 at 9 p.m.
CAPTION: Star veterinarian Steven Petersen treats a patient on Animal Planet's "Emergency Vets" program.
CAPTION: Pooches are getting more and more tube time.
CAPTION: Judge Joseph A. Wapner rules on "Animal Court."