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Animal Planet on risky seas

Aiming to show its hard edge, a network crew tags along with anti-whaling activists.

March 24, 2008|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Animal Planet's desire to become less warm and fuzzy means exposure to some unaccustomed issues, like danger on the high seas and journalistic fairness.

A network crew returned to port in Australia last week after tagging along on a mission to interfere with a Japanese whaling expedition in the Antarctic. A miniseries about the experience, "Whale Wars," is expected to air this fall.

To make the series, Animal Planet worked with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, activists who are considered either heroic defenders of wildlife or dangerous meddlers, depending on your politics.

On this trip, the group tossed rancid butter on Japanese ships to make the decks slippery and to spoil whale meat, and diplomatic intervention was needed after two society members climbed aboard a Japanese ship.

"There is an inherent excitement in what they do," said Charlie Foley, Animal Planet's vice president of development. "It's always dangerous, and there are also questions about whether this is something they should be doing.

"It's not a prototypical Animal Planet story, and that's one of the reasons we were attracted to it."

Best known for its annual cacophony of cute, the Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet is particularly popular among children and older viewers.

But that's not where the money is in television. Animal Planet craves young adult viewers, so it is promising "gripping entertainment" and is trying new series that "bring out the raw, visceral emotion in the animal kingdom."

Other networks passed on "Whale Wars" when pitched by Tennessee-based producer Rivr Media primarily because of the danger and cost of insuring a camera crew, but Animal Planet pounced. Its sister network, Discovery, has a major hit with "Deadliest Catch," about dangerous work in a forbidding ocean environment.

The Antarctic mission, Foley said, is "like a giant game of Battleship," with activists hunting Japanese ships over a vast ocean. The scenery is spectacular, he said.

The physical risk to crew members (a camera knocked overboard turned out to be the biggest casualty) is not the only chance Animal Planet is taking with "Whale Wars."

The network puts its reputation on the line by collaborating with an organization that some say has aggressive tactics.

Animal Planet was there to observe and document, Foley said, comparing the network's role to journalists embedded with military units.

He promised to be "as evenhanded as we can be" and defended the decision to show only one side.

"I'm not sure we wanted to be telling the story of the Japanese whalers," he said. "We wanted to go down there and tell the story of what motivates these people who are trying to stop the whaling."

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