Why Animal Shows Are More About People Lately Television's Animal Planet series River Monsters returns Sunday with seven new mysteries involving freshwater fish. It represents a shift in focus to more human drama. Andy Dehnart reports nature programs are taking their cue from reality TV.

Why Animal Shows Are More About People Lately

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Television's Animal Planet series called "River Monsters" returns tonight with seven new mysteries involving freshwater fish. "River Monsters' " first season was the most popular ever for the cable network, and it represented Animal Planet's shift in focus to more human drama.

Andy Dehnart reports.

ANDY DEHNART: If you've watched Animal Planet recently, you've probably seen a lot more of one species: people. Camera crews follow ex-cons rescuing pit bulls, environmentalists and jockeys, as if they were on "The Real World."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Whale Wars")

Unidentified Man: While the Japanese are hunting for whales, we're hunting for them.

Unidentified Woman: I don't ever want to go back to (unintelligible) again.

DEHNART: "Whale Wars" is just one part of Marjorie Kaplan's strategy to transform Animal Planet. When she started as the network's new president, she began adding shows that were more like reality TV. Now, people on Animal Planet are characters in a drama.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pit Bulls and Parolees")

Unidentified Man #2: It's about a man chasing a legend. Its not about pit bulls.

Unidentified Man #3: These dogs are the best dogs in the world.

Unidentified Man #2: It's about an ex-con with a big heart and a foul mouth.

Ms. MARJORIE KAPLAN (President, Animal Planet): The characters are people whose lives are enriched, changed, deepened through their relationship with this kind of primal world and the animals in it.

DEHNART: Marjorie Kaplan says soon, her network's characters will include Mike Tyson, who will be racing pigeons in his new show, and former Flipper trainer Rick O'Barry, who will try to expose the mistreatment of dolphins, like he did in the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove." Kaplan views prime-time network dramas as her competition.

Ms. KAPLAN: We do want people to say, OK, I'm not going to watch "NCIS," I'm going to watch "River Monsters" because it's a different kind of murder mystery.

DEHNART: But it's not easy to produce real-life mysteries, especially ones that involve wild animals. On "River Monsters," Jeremy Wade puts himself literally in the middle of the action, even sitting in a pool of piranha to find out if they'd attack him. He says being a TV star, surrounded by cameras, is much different than being an angler and biologist.

Dr. JEREMY WADE (Host, "River Monsters," Angler, Biologist): Because if you're not filming it, you can pull the fish out of the water, you could look at it, and you put it back. But that is the moment when you really want to get the shots. And so, you know, that's quite a conflict of interest there.

DEHNART: Animal Planet isn't the only network trying this people-centric nature TV. National Geographic just launched its Nat Geo Wild channel in the U.S., and one of its stars, naturalist Casey Anderson, says that's making animal TV shows entertaining instead of just educational.

Mr. CASEY ANDERSON (Naturalist): It's time to stop preaching to the choir. People who watch these classic nature documentaries usually already care about nature. It's time to make television compelling about these wonderful, natural places.

DEHNART: As everything from "Truth or Consequences" to "American Idol" has proven, what makes TV really compelling are those animals known as humans.

For NPR News, I'm Andy Dehnart.

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