This dog's life: Lassie and chums get a channel of their own

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The Independent Online
Michael Marcovsky has a dream and it is coming alive over orange juice and bagels at a Sunset Strip restaurant. It is a world of concerned pet owners and their pampered pooches gathered round the telly, tuning in to My Pet Television Network. Tempting adverts for organic dog food perhaps, and programming to make you drool.

In a trial broadcast this summer, My Pet TV offered minor celebrity interviews of Hollywood's Rich and Furry, the finer points of Lassie reviewed in Two Tails Up. Low budget and looked it, said the Los Angeles Times. But Mr Marcovsky's own Palomino pony lip-synched the programme breaks: "You're watching My Pet TV".

Mr Marcovsky is a 53-year-old cable industry entrepreneur, a veteran of cable programming for Time Warner and Disney offshoots, armed with $2m (pounds 1,25m) from private investors, including several vets, and an ample dose of chutzpah.

He runs off persuasive figures: more than half the households in the US own a pet, which "doesn't mean the other half don't like them". In 1997 Americans are expected to spend nearly $10bn on pet food and supplies.

In short, pet owners are a lucrative target market, and My Pet TV is ready to milk it. Laugh, if you like. But they used to snigger at the Weather Channel and scoff at the slushy music videos on Black Enter- tainment Television (BET), both launched on a shoestring. No longer: the Weather Channel is now broadcasting to European markets, while BET is a $100m business that has spun off theme restaurants and clothing lines. In six years, Court TV, the legal junkies' network, has become a national institution. America now boasts 24-hour cable "narrowcast" television channels devoted to niche markets like game shows, golf and the kids. So why leave Fido and Fluffy out?

The US television market is in a shifting state. Viewers continue to drift from ABC, NBC and CBS to Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, sports and movie channels, satellite and the World Wide Web. CNN, once the upstart, is now fending off newer rivals in the tiny 24-hour news market. Digital compression technology, lurking just round the corner for the last few years, holds out the prospect of US households picking and choosing between hundreds more cable channels than the average 50 or so they now have.

In this free-flowing environment, founding a successful cable network has become a favourite rags to riches story in the entertainment industry. Nearly 50 new networks actually launched in 1996. Others, such as Parenthood Television and the Sewing and Needle Arts Network, struggled to get off the drawing board.

My Pet TV bought just one hour a day of broadcasting time in 11 television markets around the US hoping to show a demand for pet programming. But the goal for these new ventures is the same: to become a real station, broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

My Pet TV has plenty of hurdles to overcome. Any start-up cable venture has to jostle for limited channel space with big guns like Murdoch or Disney. And in fact, it already has a competitor: the Animal Planet, based in Maryland, was launched last year with big-budget promotion.

It seems entirely fitting that Mr Marcovsky is developing his station in Los Angeles which, as well as being the home of the US entertainment industry, is surely the world capital of dumb animal excess. Movie moguls divorce their spouses and fire their agents; their dogs they send to personal trainers. Pet cemeteries refer owners to bereavement counsellors. Stories of summer camps and surf-side dining for furry friends abound.

My Pet TV already produces videos for animal shelters and 7,500 veterinarian offices around the country. But the secret of success, says Mr Marcovsky, will be the commercial and promotional tie-ins aimed at pet owners. Two thirds of them, figures show, buy Christmas presents for their pets.

"How many viewers of the Homes and Gardens channel buy gifts for their lawn-mowers?" he demanded to know.