Remembrance: Irwin Special Set

Sep 11, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Animal Planet, rocked last week by the death of Steve Irwin, is planning tributes and a special honoring the nature-show host.

All day on Sept. 17, the cable channel will televise spots honoring Mr. Irwin, who died Sept. 4 after a stingray attacked him as he taped a show off the Great Barrier Reef. Animal Planet will produce a one-hour memorial special produced by Mr. Irwin’s longtime producer John Stainton, said network Executive VP and General Manager Maureen Smith.

The channel, a Discovery Networks property, may mine the thousands of hours of unused footage from his program “The Crocodile Hunter” to create additional specials, she said.

Mr. Irwin drove the success of Animal Planet more than any other performer, stoking audience enthusiasm with his boisterous approach to wildlife appreciation. “The Crocodile Hunter” was the network’s signature show when the channel launched in 1996 and helped quadruple Animal Planet’s viewership over the next four years. Later, Mr. Irwin generated spinoffs such as “The Crocodile Hunter Diaries.”

The news of his death provoked the most chaotic day that Discovery Networks staffers ever had experienced.

Executives awoke at 1 a.m. on Sept. 4 to phone calls with the news of Mr. Irwin’s death. Because it was Labor Day, most staffers were supposed to have the day off.

“We had [staff] calling us to offer to help or just showing up to volunteer to do anything they could,” Ms. Smith said. “It was inspiring to see the sense of family that we always talk about actually come to life.”

During the next two days company staff handled a deluge of calls from the media and fans and friends of Mr. Irwin. Discovery formed teams to handle the media, prepare an official statement, plan tribute programming and create an online response.

The company announced a Steve Irwin memorial fund, then scrapped it and redirected donors to Mr. Irwin’s own Wildlife Warriors fund. An Animal Planet Web site forum for fans was deluged with thousands of posts with titles such as “can’t stop crying.”

While fans remained devoted to Mr. Irwin, viewership for his series and specials had fallen off in recent years. Animal Planet ceased production of “The Crocodile Hunter” in 2002, and Discovery Networks had been looking for new ways to package Mr. Irwin’s talent.

“New Breed Vets,” a six-episode series on zoo veterinarians hosted by Mr. Irwin, aired to modest ratings last year. For Travel Channel, Mr. Irwin filmed two hours of “Steve Irwin’s Great Escapes,” featuring the Irwin family visiting national parks.

Both were tame adventures compared with “The Crocodile Hunter” of Mr. Irwin’s heyday. His last project, “Ocean’s Deadliest Predators,” promised a return to form.

Mr. Irwin was at the Great Barrier Reef filming the program early last week. At the time of his death, however, Discovery sources said, he was shooting a scene for a different project in development at Discovery Kids.

Most of the media coverage of Mr. Irwin’s death has been sympathetic. But the Discovery team has been angered by reports drawing parallels to naturalist Timothy Treadwell, whose death from a grizzly bear attack was chronicled in the documentary “Grizzly Man.” Discovery has defended Mr. Irwin, saying he wasn’t being reckless at the time he was killed. One staffer noted that only 17 deaths caused by stingrays have been reported in the past 30 years.

Still, Mr. Irwin’s adventures were dangerous. Shaking up the genre after decades of dry nature documentaries narrated by unseen hosts, Mr. Irwin pioneered an exciting style that projected the persona of a likable adventurer in peril. Flagged with titles containing superlatives such as “Deadliest” and “Most Deadly,” Mr. Irwin put himself in harm’s way and opened the door for fellow self-styled adventurers such as Austin Stevens and Jeff Corwin.

Ms. Smith denied Mr. Irwin courted danger in his series and resisted the suggestion that future programming should take a more cautious stance.

“Steve didn’t want to get an audience by getting in harm’s way,” she said. “We always put safety as a priority. Steve’s show and his style were unique, and we would never duplicate it to begin with.”

Network executives say the tape of Mr. Irwin’s death will not be made public.

“We have no intention of airing it,” Ms. Smith said. “I have no desire to see it.”