On a sopping Sunday in April, after months of meticulous planning, Animal Planet's cameras are ready to roll at the Baltimore County Kennel Club's annual dog show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
Like at any other dog show, pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels parade before a judge, "sparkling" to applause. But on this day, special commentators are at ringside: former Olympians Donna de Varona and Wendy Hilliard, and international dog expert Wayne Cavanaugh. They're here to cover the dog show the way the Olympics are covered: by showcasing the event's elite athleticism, suspense and backstage pathos.
After the cameras stop and outtakes are swept from the #F editing-room floor, Animal Planet hopes it will have created a new hybrid for television and a new breed of dog show. The "National Dog Championships" will mix traditional dog-show coverage with close-and-personal views of the dog-show world's quirky personalities and passions. And it will create a new national dog competition, with dogs collecting Animal Planet points as they compete through the year at existing local dog shows across the country.
If Animal Planet can make this concept work -- television viewers can judge tomorrow, when the first of four shows airs -- it will be another coup for the fabulously successful niche network based in Bethesda.
Since debuting in late 1996, Animal Planet has become the fastest-growing cable network in a glutted field increasingly studded with specialty channels. It reaches 40 million homes and has gained 8.4 million subscribers this year alone. In comparison, the top cable channel, ESPN, reaches 67 million homes.
A Discovery Channel offspring, Animal Planet (motto: "All animals. All the time") grafts tried-and-true television formats onto animal-related coverage. "Emergency Vets," an "ER" knockoff, spins real-life narratives of animals treated at a Colorado veterinary clinic. "The Pet Shop" blatantly mimics the "Tonight Show," with host Andy Kindler bantering about dogs, cats and more exotic fauna, not their celebrity owners. "Horse Tales" is a 13-part PBS-esque series that traces the role of equines throughout history.
"National Dog Championships" is the logical extension of Animal Planet's programming strategy. It will highlight plucky contenders, puppies on the threshold of stardom, dedicated handlers and behind-the-scenes drama.
"We're going to make [the audience] care," says David E. Gerber, the network's director of production.
Capturing the "entire dog show experience" is a departure from coverage on the Outdoor Life channel and ESPN, where one or two cameras statically document the competitions, and interviews with handlers and trainers are sparse.
Using computer graphics, "National Dog Championships" will explain "reasons behind competition rules and regulations and judging standards," Gerber says. And because audiences "want know who to root for," dogs on a winning track will be followed, up to their crowning moment.
With the assistance of a dog-show production company, Animal Planet has devised a "National Dog Championship" scoring system that awards points for participation in 30 AKC shows. (Only dog shows in Baltimore, Houston and Phoenix and a fourth, undetermined city, will be taped and televised.) Early next year, the top 36 point earners will meet in the finals of the Animal Planet Dog Championships, and one lucky dog will receive the Eukanuba Cup, named after the contest's sponsor, an Iams dog food brand.
Ideally, Animal Planet will not alter a dog show in observing it: "We're not asking them to change the way these dog shows are held," Gerber says. "We're changing the way the audience at home sees it."
To that end, Animal Planet hired Trans World International -- a sports-television production company more accustomed to documenting golf, skating and the Whitbread than dog shows.
Dog show veterans, like Don Peacock, president of the Baltimore County Kennel Club, are enthusiastic about the chance to expose a widespread passion to an even broader audience. And, "the club feels that it is a real feather in our cap that Animal Planet has elected us as their prototype," Peacock says. Animal Planet chose the Baltimore County show as the series' launching point because it's well-established, attracts high-caliber dogs and is close to the channel's Bethesda headquarters.
Still, the Animal Planet and Trans World crews have their work cut out. A tight shot of competitors might make good TV, Cavanaugh says, but handlers "don't care about getting a dog's best profile if it's interrupting their flow."
Greetings from Baltimore
So far, so good on this day at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. The Baltimore County Kennel Club's annual show, the state's largest with 2,700 dogs, is running smoothly, barring a few complications. (The judges, for example, aren't keen on using the "telestrator" to circle finalists the way John Madden circles football plays on winter Sundays on an identical monitor. The idea is ditched.)