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Published: Sunday, 1/17/2010

Discovery Channel taps into nature again

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PASADENA, Calif. - Two years ago, Discovery Channel had a hit with the documentary series Planet Earth - and it has been trying to replicate it ever since, including with Nature's Most Amazing Events in 2009.

The network hopes to score again with Life, an 11-part co-production with the BBC that will air 8-10 p.m. Sundays March 21 through April 18.

"If Planet Earth set the stage, Life introduces you to the stars and their bizarre and fascinating behaviors," said Discovery Channel President Clark Bunting. Episodes focus on birds, marine invertebrates, fish, hunting mammals, insects, plants, primates, and reptiles and amphibians.

David Attenborough, the voice of BBC natural-history programs for decades, narrated the British version of Life. Discovery replaces him for the U.S. airing with narration by Oprah Winfrey, who will launch a Discovery-backed channel, OWN, next year.

Nature-program purists may balk, but it's an obvious marketing move designed to draw more viewers to the American airing of the program. And it's not like Winfrey has a terrible voice. But Bunting dodged questions about the replacement, which only served to prolong TV critics' queries.

"After hearing a little of the read, we decided this is the person who can really bring life to Life," Bunting said. That makes it sound like Winfrey had to audition for this gig. Really?

He also spoke of "the quality and timbre" of her voice and how Winfrey can "open the editorial," which sounds like it means an ability to make the program more accessible to non-nature junkies. Bunting said Winfrey was "a huge fan" of Planet Earth before finally copping to the marketing value of attaching Winfrey's brand name to the program.

"Obviously, she's a well-known personality, and clearly with OWN [she] is a part of the Discovery family, but it clearly was her voice, and commitment," Bunting said. "It is something she's totally passionate about."

"We are not stupid: Jane Austen is catnip to our audience," said Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "Unfortunately, she only wrote six books and she's dead."

A new production of Emma airs over three Sundays beginning Jan. 24.

Also coming in the current season of Masterpiece Classic, a new version of The Diary of Anne Frank, which premieres April 11, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Eaton said research found that "a large percentage of younger people did not know the Holocaust happened or who Adolf Hitler was," which led Masterpiece to go forward with a new production of the story.

"Besides, this is a very different Diary of Anne Frank that shows Anne in all her feistiness, all her rebelliousness as a regular girl who did not like her mother and sister," Eaton said.

This summer Masterpiece Mystery! will include new stories in series featuring the detectives Wallander, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Lewis as well as three new Foyle's War episodes.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles.

Contact him at:

rowen@post-gazette.com



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