Irwin's death leaves void for Discovery to fill

September 06, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Steve Irwin, the conservationist and entertainer known as the Crocodile Hunter, just might leave two legacies: One to the wild animals he sought to protect and another to the cable channel that he helped build.

Media analysts say the Animal Planet channel, owned by Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications Inc., became a household name largely because of its larger-than-life star whose daredevil antics drew millions of fans to his wild animal series and documentaries - and introduced them to other shows.

He died Monday during a filming expedition for the channel on Australia's Great Barrier Reef after being stung by a stingray.

"Every cable channel desperately wants its one big hit so the public knows it exists," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, adding that Crocodile Hunter helped establish Animal Planet as a mainstream channel.

"There used to be only three broadcast networks, but now there are so many cable channels that people have them on their dial and don't know it until that show," Thompson said.

Crocodile Hunter launched in 1996 with Animal Planet and became a hit for a cable show. It also made Irwin a worldwide celebrity.

The show recently ended, but Irwin went on to film documentaries and other programs and a feature film called The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course. He appeared regularly on late-night talk shows. He even had a cameo in the film Dr. Doolittle 2.

It's not clear how many future commitments Irwin had to Discovery - and what that may mean for advertising dollars or ratings.

Discovery Communications said in a release that it began airing special tribute programming Monday night on Animal Planet to highlight Irwin's background and his passion for wildlife. On Sept. 10, the channel plans an all-day marathon tribute featuring the Best of the Croc Hunter.

Discovery will name the garden space in front of the headquarters building in Silver Spring the "Steve Irwin Memorial Garden." And it also will create a Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter Fund called "The Crikey Fund," named for Irwin's catch phrase, that will be used for wild animal conservation, education and protection.

All of the attention given his death might give Animal Planet a surge in attention in the coming days as fans tune in to see the tribute programming, said Matthew Harrigan, a media analyst at Janco Partners.

The official Web site of the Crocodile Hunter and the Australia Zoo, a wildlife sanctuary that Irwin ran, have been overrun with visitors.

Harrigan said that while Irwin's physical and economic loss will be felt at Animal Planet, the channel now is established and can weather the long-term impact. The company has a library of shows to sell or rebroadcast as demand warrants.

"He certainly was an important building block at Animal Planet," he said. "His death is a human loss and certainly will be a long-term detriment, but it won't kill the franchise."

Discovery has raised its profile in recent years with such things as its sponsorship of the pro cycling team that included seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. In January, the company signed former ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel as managing editor and plans exclusive programming. Discovery Channel and TLC have become two of the company's largest, and both logged ratings increases in the second quarter, according to a statement filed by Discovery Holdings Co., a public company that owns half of Discovery Channel Inc. shares.

According to the earnings report, Discovery's revenue increased 11 percent and advertising revenue increased 3 percent.

Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that other Discovery shows have become bigger hits than Crocodile Hunter, such as TLC's Trading Spaces. But Irwin's show fits the mold of a classic Discovery series, he said. It was shot in Australia where production costs are relatively low, and it appealed to an upper-income, better-educated audience that is an attractive advertising demographic.

That makes it appealing for Discovery to create a new travel adventure show.

"I'd be surprised if they don't try; if they don't make a good concerted effort," he said.

But he and others say it might not be successful.

Abe Novick, a senior vice president at Eisner Communications, an advertising firm that has bought time on Discovery networks, said Irwin tapped into something in the pop psychology and pop culture that appealed to modern audiences.

"He was appealing because of his approach to danger and to overcoming danger," he said. "He stared death in the face time and time again, literally. Other shows already have tried to replicate it, to different degrees of success."

Sun reporter Tom Dunkel contributed to this article.

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