When Discovery Communications launched the Animal Planet channel in 1996, network executives hunted for a star to help distinguish it from the staid, narrated documentaries that were the hallmark of animal shows.
What they found was Steve Irwin, a hyper and sometimes bug-eyed Australian unafraid to trade body blows with powerful crocodiles, corral poisonous snakes, or fling himself on dangerous animals. By fearlessly inserting himself into the world of wild things, Irwin helped set Animal Planet apart in the crowded and rapidly growing cable universe.
"He was probably the first real star the channel had," said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks U.S.
But with his death from a stingray barb this week while filming for Animal Planet on the Great Barrier Reef, Discovery is left looking for stars to fill the void left by one of its best-known and most-watched personalities.
Discovery already has some personalities in the Irwin mold, such as Jeff Corwin, who also takes a hands-on approach to wildlife, wrangling snakes and other creatures. One of the channel's biggest hit has furry stars — the prime-time "Meerkat Manor" follows the lives a troop of small African weasel-like creatures.
And in the spring, Animal Planet plans to unveil its first female explorer, "Ms. Adventure," also known as comedienne Rachel Reenstra. She will travel the world observing animal relationships and trying to apply them to humans.
"I only hope I can take what (Irwin) gave to this world and continue his legacy in the best way 'Ms. Adventure' and Rachel Reenstra can," Reenstra wrote this week in her blog.
Campbell said a planned show for children with Irwin's eight-year-old daughter, Bindi Sue, could also still be a possibility despite her father's death.
Irwin will remain a fixture on the network, at least for now. Animal Planet plans several tributes and "Crocodile Hunter" marathons in the next few weeks. Discovery still has hundreds of hours of Irwin shows in its library. But Irwin starred in five shows for the network, and it remains unclear whether a planned sixth will go forward.
Animal Planet is one of the top networks for Discovery Communications, a privately held broadcaster and media company in Silver Spring, Md., with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The company says it reaches more than 1 billion cable subscribers worldwide. Ratings dipped in 2005 but have since rebounded.
Many Discovery shows have lifestyle and hobby themes — such as home design, makeover, health and auto work — that air on networks that include TLC and the Discovery Channel. But it also has an entire network devoted to health issues, a show called "Dirty Jobs" and a more sober show hosted by former Nightline star Ted Koppel.
Discovery has also cultivated an entertainment approach to animal programming, marked by shows that run animal bloopers, rate the "most extreme" animals, and follow animal police as they search out pet owner scofflaws. Each year it broadcasts a weeklong "Shark Week" marathon of shows with sharks gnashing on seals and other unfortunate creatures.
Irwin embodied that approach with his original show "Crocodile Hunter," which began on Australian television. Animal Planet aired 72 shows during the six years it was in production, and it still draws about 750,000 viewers per week during its 6 p.m. weekday time slot. His other shows for Discovery included one about animal surgeries and a children's show called "Croc Files."
Campbell said he expects Irwin's death could actually boost his exposure for up to a year, drawing in viewers unfamiliar with his shows. But ultimately, he said Animal Planet has a stable of established and new stars it can promote.
"One star does not make a company, but he's been very important to Animal Planet," Campbell said. "This is one of those situations where on the business side it really won't impact us very much."
Media analyst Andy Baker, who covers Discovery for Cathay Financial LLC, said Irwin's loss likely won't cause a ratings drop for the network. The audience for "Crocodile Hunter" has held steady for the past year, he said.
But trying to replace his outsized personality could be difficult and risky if the network looks for someone in the same mold.
"Can you replace Steve Irwin? He's a one of a kind personality," Baker said. "When you try to get someone to be the wild, outrageous guy, it is going to fall flat."