- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

NEW YORK (AP)

Animal Planet’s desire to become less warm and fuzzy means exposure to some unaccustomed issues, such as 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, a group of activists who are considered 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 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,” says 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 — which is owned by Discovery Communications — 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.”

Though other networks passed on “Whale Wars” when pitched by the Tennessee-based producers of Rivr Media, primarily because of the danger and cost of insuring a camera crew, 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 is “like a giant game of Battleship,” Mr. Foley says, with activists hunting Japanese ships over a vast ocean. The scenery is spectacular, he notes.

Yet 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 has such a strong point of view.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is known for its aggressive tactics and public relations savvy, says Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program at New York University. The group sails under the Jolly Roger and has been accused of trying to sink ships.

The International Whaling Commission, devoted to protecting whales, criticized the society for jeopardizing safety at sea with the Antarctic mission.

Supporters say that while others might condemn the killing of whales, the society is actually trying to stop it.

Animal Planet was there to observe and document, Mr. Foley says, comparing the network’s role to that of journalists embedded with military units.

Rivr Media and independent producer Dan Stone developed the idea for the series, says Rob Lundgren, the company’s president. He described Mr. Stone as an “avid supporter” of the Sea Shepherd society who has contributed money to the group.

Producers doubted they would be given access to Japanese whaling boats, so they didn’t try. Makers of “Whale Wars” made no attempt to get the Japanese side of the story, Mr. Lundgren says. Mr. Foley says they didn’t have time.

Both sides of the Antarctic confrontation have already found plenty of reasons to argue.

The Japanese claimed four people on whaling ships were hurt when Sea Shepherd volunteers began throwing the rancid butter; Sea Shepherd says the only problems were people throwing up from the smell. Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson claims the Japanese shot at him; the Japanese say they fired stun grenades that make noise but have no shrapnel.

An incident in which two activists spent two days aboard a harpoon boat is also murky. The society initially claimed they were delivering a written protest to stop killing whales; it later said the men had planted electronic bugs to help the group track the Japanese fleet. There were questions about whether the men were restrained while on the boat.

The Sea Shepherd society has claimed victory in its mission, saying the Japanese didn’t kill nearly as many whales as they set out to kill.

Mr. Foley promises an approach “as even-handed as we can be.” He defends the decision to show only one side.

“I’m not sure we wanted to be telling the story of the Japanese whalers,” he says. “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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