By FRAZIER MOORENEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Animal Planet wants to help you tap into your inner wild. That's the network's message as it unveils 11 new shows along with 20 returning favorites in the season ahead. Never fear: Super Bowl Sunday's wildly popular "Puppy Bowl" is right where it belongs on the network's slate (to be officially announced to advertisers on Thursday). And there will be more awww-some cuteness on "Animal BFFs," a new series that will document the love of odd-couple chums in the animal kingdom. On the other hand, "Polar Bear Crossing" will transport viewers to Manitoba, Canada, where the human population of the tiny town of Churchill is outnumbered by its not-always-so-neighborly cohabitants: polar bears. "Underworld" dives into underwater caves around the world, where mysteries lurk that were previously witnessed by few if any humans, and where danger is as prevalent as wonders. And don't forget Billy and Ami Brown, who, with their seven children, have taken residence deep in Alaska's wilderness. For this "Alaska Bush Family," a harsh environment, dangerous critters and a challenging terrain are just part of everyday family life. Going wild is the latest step for Animal Planet, which previously recognized people as part of its animal equation with its "Surprisingly Human" push. "There is no animal planet and human planet â¿¿ it's all ONE planet," says Marjorie Kaplan, the network's president and general manager. "So we decided to tell the human stories that happen at that intersection." It worked. In 2012, the network grew by 17 percent among viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, and by 23 percent among men 25 to 54. It was the network's most-watched year among total viewers. "But then we asked ourselves, is there more elbow room in this brand?" says Kaplan. "The intersection of human and animal is really about the connection of humans to the wild. We're not getting rid of our animals, but there are places we can explore that are about how we, as humans, live on this wild planet."
Example: "Catch and Release," a back-to-nature game show that makes "Survivor" seem as tame as a round of "Jeopardy."On this show, a group of five of what are billed as "the world's most elite, thrill-seeking survivalists" choose one among them, then blindfold and dispatch him to a remote, unexpected location (whether a dense jungle or a frigid glacier) to fend for himself. He has 100 hours to find his way back to civilization or he loses the game â¿¿ big-time. "This is our idea of fun," insists one of these chaps. "It's a hero's journey," says Kaplan, "but we also want to show the camaraderie of his friends, who are monitoring him on video. We want to show the fun of the game." A different kind of competition is "Top Hooker," which pits 10 expert fishermen against one another in a series of wild challenges with a $30,000 prize waiting to be snagged. "There's something about the rarefied, careful, air-conditioned lives that we live that leaves us wanting more," says Kaplan. "We feel like we're missing something." Maybe from our air-conditioned living rooms we can fantasize about the wild quest for tiny fish on "Eel of Fortune," which tracks the hectic Maine fishing season for elver eels, an Asian delicacy that sells for $2,600 per pound and can bring in nightly hauls worth up to $40,000. A much different animal-related profession is depicted in "Clipped." Arkansas-based Angela Kumpe is an "extreme groomer" who, when styling her canine clients, doesn't stop with the scissors and shampoo. A dog can end up looking like a bumblebee or a buffalo as Kumpe's imagination runs wild. "I can transform a dog into almost anything," she boasts. Meanwhile, the hit show "My Cat From Hell" will spawn "My Tiny Terror," as Animal Planet's small-dog trainer roams the country to cut unruly little dogs down to size, thus restoring harmony to their owners' homes.
The Animal Planet slate will be unfolding the rest of this year and into 2014.But new shows coming soon include "Ice Cold Gold," which spotlights a team of miners who are among the first Americans to prospect for precious metals and gems in a part of Greenland where humans have never set foot before. It premieres April 21. And on May 31, "Treehouse Masters" goes out on a limb to display the sprawling luxury treehouses masterminded by "tree whisperer" Pete Nelson and his team for back-to-nature living at its leafiest. "We'll still have plenty of great human-animal interaction," Kaplan promises, "but we also want to show what it's like to live in the wild." Even when it's wildly fabulous. ___ Animal Planet is owned by Discovery Communications Inc. ___ EDITOR'S NOTE â¿¿ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier