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Posted at 3:27 a.m. EST Friday, January 28, 2000



R.D. Heldenfels

Beacon Journal

In the 1988 movie comedy Scrooged, a network executive suggests that in future TV shows, `we throw in a little pet appeal.`

Citing a study indicating cats and dogs are watching television, the executive (played by Robert Mitchum) tells his top programmer (Bill Murray) that `we should start programming right now so in 20 years, they could become regular viewers.`

The executive is supposed to be off the wall. (`Call the police!` a nervous Murray whispers to his assistant.) But reality has caught up with his lunacy.

On Thursday, a cat-food company plans to start televising what it calls `a first-of-its-kind 30-second television commercial created specifically for the individuals who consume its products -- cats.`

The commercial, for a new Whiskas product, claims to use scientifically determined `colors, movements and noises that are known to attract cats' attention.`

And just in case a cat isn't aware of the commercial -- which will air on ABC, CBS and NBC -- it will be preceded by a 15-second teaser so pet owners have time to alert their pets.

Now, animals have had an honored place on television -- indeed, in entertainment generally -- for years.

Lassie was a mainstay on the big and small screens. Ditto for Rin Tin Tin. Walt Disney built his empire on the back of a mouse. Warner Bros.' most famous performer is a wisecracking bunny while its network, The WB, has a spokesfrog.

Frasier star Kelsey Grammer has at times lamented the attention given to the show's dog, Eddie (played by Moose). Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, star
-1Melissa Joan Hart shares screen time with the cat Salem (voice by Nick Bakay).

Depending on your age (and how many hours you've spent in front of your TV), you're going to get a twinge of recognition over Me and the Chimp, The Hathaways (featuring the fabulous Marquis Chimps), Mr. Smith (orangutan), My Friend Flicka (horse), Fury (another horse), Benji (dog), Here's Boomer (another dog), The People's Choice (yet another dog) and such pet-peripheral shows as Manimal (man able to transform into you-know-what) and Alf, the furry cat-eating alien.

In fact, human viewers like animals so much, there's an entire cable channel, Animal Planet, devoted to the subject.

And entertainment shows often draw a close connection between animals and their audiences by making the animals de facto humans, from the all-knowing Lassie and the noble steed Fury (who were better than most humans) to the smart-mouthed talking horse Mr. Ed and the tons of smart-alecky animated critters.

A peculiarly Darwinian variation on the human-animal connection arrives June 10, when TBS Superstation begins carrying The Chimp Channel, a new comedy series about a fictional television station with all the characters played by simians (with human voices). Among the shows on the channel: Treewatch.

Given that this is a not-very-good sitcom that just has its lines coming out the mouths of chimps, a preview tape got tiresome very quickly. But The Chimp Channel is in a grand TV tradition, following the groundbreaking, similarly styled Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. That '70s kiddie comedy -- now in rerun on TV Land -- gave the world Mata Hairi, Dr. Strangemind and the immortal rock band Evolution Revolution.

But, again, these are shows that people look for when they go to animal fare.

If, like Dr. Dolittle, we could talk to the animals, what would they ask to see?

An announcement of the Whiskas commercial claims that it knows what cats like, including simple pictures `with contrasting images, such as zigzag lines` and high-pitched sounds to which cats are especially sensitive.

Indeed, it claims that when a version of the ad ran in Great Britain, `over 80 percent of the consumers responding to the ad reported that their cats had a favorable reaction to the spot.`

I'm not sure how they knew that -- `All right, kitty, raise one paw when you like something, two when you don't` -- but let's take them at their word. It still raises the question of why a company would tailor an ad to cats. Do they have secret funds tucked away in their -- you know this one's coming -- kitty?

Hey, in a time when it's hard enough to get humans to watch TV, it's not that unreasonable to hope that reaching out to cats will bring their owners along.

And if it does, you could see a whole new industry of animal-related television rise up. The Whiskas ad reaches just part of the market. As the company points out, `Dogs failed to show any interest in the ad.`

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