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Addictive Animal Webcams Get Network Attention

Vincenzo Lombardo | Stockbyte | Getty Images

The average visitor to the Kitten Cam on Animal Planet's Web site has a hard time leaving. The live Internet stream of felines has been watched more than 25 million times since it started last September. The average person, seemingly transfixed by the cuteness, stays on the page for 18 minutes and 50 seconds.

"That's a longer length of time than many television shows," said the head of Animal Planet, Marjorie Kaplan.

The channel, sensing that its visitors would like more, will begin promoting 10 more Web channels this week as "ambient entertainment" for viewers and advertisers. At a new Web site, APL.TV, webcams of ants, beluga whales, chicks, penguins, wild birds and even cockroaches, will be live all the time, day and night.

The Web channels — under the umbrella name "Animal Planet Live" — are meant for Internet-connected TV sets, so viewers can watch the kitties and penguins on their big screens.

Animal Planet already has a deal with Samsung so that the cams will appear on the manufacturer's smart TV interface, and it says it will have similar apps for Roku and Xbox Live in coming months. The arrangement portends a future when tiny, cheap Web channels can compete for viewers with 30-year-old cable TV channels.

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An important point for Animal Planet's owner, Discovery Communications, which has withheld most of its television programming from the Web, is that the new Web channels are additive, in that they do not use anything that already appears on the main Animal Planet channel.

"This is a complementary channel that expands the brand, but isn't doing what we're doing on TV," said JB Perrette, the chief digital officer for Discovery.

Someday, the Cockroach Cam might show up right next to Animal Planet on a next-generation television guide. Discovery can sell ads on both, though executives at the company acknowledge that for now the cheap animal cams are only an incremental source of revenue.

Animal cams have existed online for as long as there have been webcams. Perhaps the most famous is the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam, which became something of a sensation when it was started by a couple in San Francisco in 2008. The New York Times has featured on its Web site a Hawk Cam, chronicling the red-tailed hawks of Washington Square Park, since 2011.

Generally speaking, the cams that have attracted a rabid following are managed by amateurs or nonprofit groups, not by companies looking to profit from them. So Animal Planet is treading lightly. In some cases it planned to redistribute existing cams, like the beluga and sea nettle cams already operated by Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation.

Jason Damata, a media adviser for Explore.org, said the group has set up 50 cams around the world "purely to inspire people to fall in love with the world again and give them a break." He said the cams are particularly popular during the day, when many people are at work and presumably taking a break.

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The Explore.org cams picked up by Animal Planet will not have any advertising at first. "We may work out a revenue model that helps other charities, but for now we are happy to gain access to their audience," Mr. Damata said.

In other cases, zoos and sanctuaries have given Animal Planet access to set up cams and attach ads to the streams. That's how the Ant Cam came about, courtesy of the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans, and the Kitten Cam — from a playpen at the Washington Animal Rescue League — set up to promote a TV show called "Too Cute." The channel is operating one cam, the Wild Bird Cam, on its own.

The wild stars of the webcams are unpredictable, and that's partly why the concept can be so entertaining (and, at other times, a snooze).

The Web channels, save for the ones from Explore.org, will be interrupted every eight minutes or so by commercials. A spokeswoman for Animal Planet said Merial, the maker of Frontline flea and tick control treatment, was the first sponsor. Discovery says the cams will add to existing deals with some advertisers, and be an enticement to others that haven't bought ads on Animal Planet before.

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For example, Orkin, a manufacturer of pest control products that has never advertised on the main channel, will be the sponsor of the Cockroach Cam in June.

"Who would have thought you could easily find a sponsor for a Cockroach Cam?" Mr. Perrette said with a laugh.

Animal Planet expects that the cams will serve as a sort of wallpaper for some viewers — especially since they are made for big-screen streaming. Ms. Kaplan said that when she took over Animal Planet, her husband proposed that "starting at 2 in the morning, you should have tropical fish all night long."

"I'm making his dreams come true," she said.

She and Mr. Perrette cited the traffic statistics for the existing webcams, like the feline one, as evidence that viewers did want access to more live streams of animal habitats.

"It's proven that people watch this stuff and can't get enough of it, frankly," Mr. Perrette said.

Unbeknown to you, the reader, this column took an unusually long time to finish. It was the Puppy Cam's fault.

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