Pass the Remote, Rex: Meet the Founder of DOGTV

After years of writing TV shows for humans, Ron Levi switched to programming for an overlooked but intensely loyal audience: dogs.

The tale begins with a cat. “In 2007 I was working for Channel 24 ‏[the Israeli music channel] and every day when I left for work, my cat, Charlie, would give me this pitiful look, like ‘Dude, why are you leaving me home alone?’” At the time, Ron Levi, Charlie’s owner, was host of the daily show “The Magazine.”

“I thought Charlie might enjoy listening to music when he was home alone,” Levi recounts. “So I put on some jazz for him. I love jazz, but he hid behind the couch. He didn’t relate to it or to any other music. And then I thought, I’ve got a TV too. Maybe I should turn it on for him?”

Levi’s love affair with the screen goes back more than two decades. In the early 1990s, as a high school student in Ra’anana, he was one of the presenters of the cult cable show for teens “How to Kill an Hour.” After his army service, he went to England to study communications and was also the drummer in an Israeli rock band ‏(Selfish Gene‏). When he returned to Israel, Levi presented a segment on the Channel 1 children’s program “Zap Lerishon” for two years. From there he moved on to Channel 24 and Radio FM102, where he had a daily show.

“But all my experience in television and communications didn’t really prepare me for the challenge of finding suitable content for Charlie,” he says with a smile. “Basically, what I did was spend hours surfing the Internet, searching for material. I learned that cats really relate to other animals – fish and birds, for example. So I downloaded some bits from the Web and connected it to the TV. Charlie’s reaction was incredible. He leaped at the screen and pressed himself to it whenever a bird chirped or a fish moved around in an aquarium. Suddenly I didn’t feel quite as bad about abandoning him at home when I went to work.”

But Levi’s job at Channel 24 didn’t last long. “Keshet bought the channel and they decided to take it more in the direction of Mizrahi [Mediterranean] music, so I knew I wouldn’t find my place there. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in life, but I’m always getting ideas.”

The chief idea he had percolating at the time was to create television content for animals. “When I saw Charlie reacting so enthusiastically to the few little bits I downloaded for him from the Internet, I thought, Why not take it a lot further? And why do it only for cats? I should do it for dogs, too.”

Levi discovered that, while there was quite a lot of material out there with feline appeal, dogs were being woefully underserved. “There was nothing,” Levi says, “aside from some short clips of dogs walking on the beach with Michael Bolton playing in the background.”

Straight after leaving Channel 24, Levi arranged a meeting with the directors of the HOT cable network, which had just launched their Video-on-Demand service. “I pitched the idea of television programming for animals. They thought it was a little weird, but they gave me the OK. I collected a bunch of clips for cats and a few for dogs, and we put it on. In no time there were thousands of orders. I was surprised by the response, and that’s when the potential really hit me. And this was just with some primitive material that wasn’t even up to such a professional level. So after a few months I decided to leave HOT in order to pursue this with the utmost seriousness.”

Pretty out there

Realizing he had to take his “animal channel” idea to an overseas audience, Levi met with the directors of Jasmine TV, a media company that includes July-August Productions ‏(producers of the game shows “1 vs. 100” and “Still Standing”‏). “They’re the most serious television people in Israel,” Levi states. “They created the Sports Channel, Channel 8 [the documentary channel‏] and other channels for cable, as well as international channels. I saw them as my window to the wider world.”

The first meeting didn’t go well. “I sat there with the CEO, Gilad Neumann, and told him what the idea was. He thought it was totally nuts. I went back home. The next day Neumann calls me and says: ‘Listen Ron, your idea is pretty out there, but maybe it’s not completely farfetched. Let’s do it.”

To interest American cable companies in the idea, he first had to produce an hour-long pilot. “Originally we thought about creating content for cats and dogs, and so the name was going to be PETTV,” Levi reveals. “But as soon as you start researching it, you see there’s no way that could work. Cats like to see lots of different animals and different types of activity,” he says. “Dogs mostly like to see themselves. Show a dog a cat on the screen and he’ll go crazy trying to catch it. Play barking sounds for him and he’ll also lose it. So you can’t make content that’s good for both animals.”

As their research progressed, Levi and the folks at Jasmine realized where they should focus their efforts. “There’s an essential difference between dogs and cats. A cat is not considered a social animal. It doesn’t need human company to feel good. So despite how I felt when I left Charlie home alone, our research showed that most cat owners have no problem leaving their cats by themselves. With dogs, it’s a totally different story.”

According to Levi, American researchers who monitored dogs left home alone made some upsetting findings. “The dog has a very hard time,” he says. “It’s a very social animal, almost human. When his master leaves him, he stays by the door most of the time. When he’s home alone he barks a lot more, wrecks more furniture, is more agitated. There’s a reason he’s so excited to see his master when he returns. Another thing we found is that 16 percent of dogs are diagnosed as suffering from abandonment anxiety. Eight percent of dogs in the United States are on Prozac.”

The guilt feelings of dog owners who leave their pets at home have given rise to phenomena like dog psychologists ‏(“Very popular in America”‏), dog whisperers, and a host of other services specially tailored to these beloved animals.

“In America, there are 78 million pet dogs,“ Levi says. “It’s a $50 billion-a-year market. So we decided to go after dogs. Even though it’s a lot harder to get a dog glued to the screen, dogs have a much greater need for television programming. So we changed it from PETTV to DOGTV.”

The initial idea was to produce an hour-long pilot they could pitch to the American cable networks. “But we decided to go about it as seriously as possible. We embarked on a learning period that lasted several years,” Levi says. “I read every study ever done on dogs and television content − there are 38 of them, by the way, some dating back to the 1980s. The first conclusion was that old analog television sets aren’t suitable for dogs. They have a 60 Hz frame speed and dogs see at a frequency of 70-80 Hz, so they could hardly see it. But now in the age of plasma TVs and LCD, the frame speed is 100 Hz, so dogs see it very well. So the technology is working in our favor.”

Levi says some experts long ago advised dog owners to leave the tube on when leaving the house, “but the problem is what to put on for the dog to see. A channel like Animal Planet, for instance, is all about animals, but it’s meant for humans. There’s a lot of talking going on. And what happens when there’s a commercial break and the volume goes up? The dog gets stressed. And if you put on CNN and suddenly you hear bombings in Iraq? The dog gets stressed. Or you put music on MTV − that kind of music isn’t good for a dog. So we decided to create quality content for canines.”

Dr. Rafi Kishon, of the Ramat Aviv Veterinary Center, echoes this view: “There’s real thought and logic here, it’s not just some silly gag. I already advise owners of the dogs I treat to leave the television on. Dogs are used to living in a pack. In the modern age, the family replaces the pack to a certain extent, but isolation is not a natural state for a dog. So hearing the sound of human voices from the television, or seeing something happening there, can ease the dog’s distress a little bit.”

HBO for dogs

Levi took a doggedly scientific approach to his research. “As the chief content officer for the channel, I had to learn all there is to learn about dogs and what they like − what they like to see, what they like to hear, how they react to different colors. My goal was to make this HBO for dogs, not just some gimmick that only lasts a few months.”

He started by traveling to the U.S. to meet with the biggest experts in the field, hoping to get them on board. “Prof. Nicholas Dodman is an animal behaviorist and one of the world’s leading dog psychologists. Victoria Stilwell is a dog trainer and huge celebrity in America; for five years she’s had a popular show on Animal Planet called ‘It’s Me Or The Dog.’ Warren Eckstein is a dog psychologist with a radio show that’s broadcast on 112 stations. People from all over America call and tell him about their dog’s problems, or about their problems with their dogs, and he advises them. We were able to recruit this trio. And we also obtained the support of the Humane Society, which understood that we’re trying to create something that is all for dogs’ benefit.”

Dr. Ofra Galili, of the Hebrew University Veterinary Hospital in Beit Dagan and a specialist in treating dog behavioral problems, is more skeptical about the need for such a channel. “I have some reservations about it. It’s not clear there’s a real difference between this supposedly unique programming and regular television programming for adults or children. I know that my dog reacts to the television, but he’ll never watch for more than half a minute to a minute at a time. As far as the science goes, there haven’t been enough articles in professional literature about what kind of programming is appropriate for dogs, if anything,” she says. “But the fact that DOGTV has the backing of professionals like Prof. Nicholas Dodman, who is certainly a world-renowned expert, definitely gives it a little more legitimacy in my view.”

Following the guidance of his team of experts, Levi oversaw the installation of 28 surveillance cameras in homes and dog shelters. “We broadcast our filmed material for them and left them alone. We saw what they reacted to and how,” he recounts.

Yet despite all the experts and experiments, there were still some amusing mishaps during the production process. “One day we were filming a rabbit. The rabbit is an animal that dogs really love, and we were hovering there with a microphone for at least an hour, waiting for the rabbit to make a sound. Nothing. We didn’t know what to do. Until it hit us that we didn’t need the animal itself to make a sound. We could create all the sound we wanted.

“Also, at first we were filming the animals the way we humans would look at them. We put it on for the dogs and saw that they weren’t responding. They need a totally different point of view. So from that moment on, we started doing all the filming from the dog’s point of view. The color contrasts are also specifically designed for dogs and less for the human eye. You have to remember that all dogs are color-blind. Put a red ball on green grass and they won’t see it. They see yellow and blue.

“Another thing we learned is that dogs have highly developed space perception, and especially depth perception. This enabled us to create animated and 3-D material that is very much tailored for them. All in all, it was a process of trial and error that lasted more than three years.”

As time went by, most of the filming shifted to the United States. “We needed the American look for a channel that’s aimed at America – the all-American houses, American kids. So we filmed mostly in California, and meanwhile we were having meetings with television executives who kept giving us their input, too.”

What about Charlie?

DOGTV wasn’t an easy sell. “People really loved the idea, but weren’t sure if it would really translate or if there would be any demand,” Levi says. “But fortunately we were able to launch the channel in February 2012 on a San Diego cable station. The choice of city was not random: It has a very high percentage of homes with cable and dogs. It also fit us like a glove in terms of producing the programming.

“We filmed a good number of shows there, thanks to the great weather and the locations,” Levi adds. “It was a test market. We decided to offer the channel for free there for the first months, to see how dog owners and their pets responded. The launch was mainly for our sake, so we could learn and improve and adapt ourselves to the target audience. And we were quite amazed by the results. We were hoping to attract 1 or 2 percent of all dog owners, and we got more than 14 percent.”

An even bigger surprise was how much buzz the channel generated. “We figured that the local press would cover it,” says Levi, “but we never imagined that David Letterman, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, and practically every television station and newspaper in the world, would talk about it.” Still, a television channel for dogs is certainly the kind of thing to attract curiosity and invite wisecracks. Someone on CBS remarked, “It’s great there’s a special channel for dogs. Because on the other cable channels, most of the shows are aimed at a viewership with a lower intelligence.”

When the channel started charging a monthly subscription fee, Forbes Magazine predicted: “Will pet owners fork out five extra bucks a month to keep their dogs soothed? Hell yes! The five bucks isn’t for the dog − it’s to soothe the conscience of working owners.” Britain’s Daily Mail said, “And if not just for dogs, soft-hearted pet lovers may find themselves attached to the channel.”

The channel’s early effectiveness and the buzz surrounding it are apparently what led to its acquisition in other parts of California.

“The goal is to expand a lot more in America and the world,” Levi declares. “We’re working hard to launch in markets like Japan and Brazil, and we’ve also launched a Web channel and an app. The channel is soon going to be added to the YES cable network here. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on social networks and creating active communities. We’ve registered patents on some of the unique aspects of our content, and getting countless offers for collaborations.”

So Ron, do you have a dog?

“Not yet. I’m traveling all the time, and my girlfriend is at work at her startup company in Jerusalem nearly all the time.”

And what about Charlie? Is he offended?

“He died of cancer a couple of months ago. But we’re constantly getting inquiries about producing a special channel for cats, too. It will happen. I owe it to Charlie.”

What dogs need on TV

1. Stimulation: “The dog has to respond to what’s on screen, to prevent all the negative effects that occur when he’s left all alone at home 16 hours a day, whether it’s because his master is away or just sleeping,” Levi says.

2. Relaxation: “The aim is to lower the dog’s heart rate and ease the tension he feels when he’s home alone. This is achieved by using the right sound and the right music. Dogs love to see zebras, monkeys, elephants. Not scary animals. They don’t like lions or crocodiles. Dogs also like people, but at certain energy levels. They mainly like children who speak to them in a flattering and soothing way. So we filmed kids telling them: ‘Come on, dog. Good dog!’”

3. Overcoming fear: “Besides offering positive reinforcement, it’s also important to create programming that will help dogs cope with their genuine fears and actually help them alter their perception of these things, to some degree. There are a lot of things dogs don’t like − the noise of thunderstorms, vacuum cleaners, buses, ambulances, washing machines. They’re also very afraid of babies jumping on them, and elevators and riding in a car. So the idea is to pair these experiences with things they do like, with sounds or pictures that are pleasing to them.”
 


 

DOGTV
Yanai Yechiel
DOGTV
Yanai Yechiel