National Geographic goes to Hollywood, embraces big-budget storytelling

Following the success of Cosmos, National Geographic will lean more on big-budget storytelling

• Following the success of Cosmos, National Geographic will lean more on big-budget storytelling

BY DAN BARRETT

The National Geographic channels are embracing large-scale Hollywood production in a fresh approach to storytelling.

“What viewers will start to see in 2016 is a new strategy around our content,” explained National Geographic’s Australian territory head Jacqui Feeney. “There will be a stronger focus on entertainment. For a long time we’ve thought of ourselves as the premium science, adventure, and exploration channel and not much has changed about that positioning, but it’s how we execute that which will change quite dramatically and you will start to see that in 2016.”

2014’s National Geographic series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was a game changer for the brand. Aired in conjunction with the US Fox network, the series was a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The new version was hosted by noted scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and opened with a brief introduction by the US President Barack Obama. The show utilised sophisticated special effects to offer visually rich explanations of scientific concepts and principles.

“We took a topic like big science and really made it much sexier and bigger budget, with lots of special effects. We really put a lot into amplifying that story and being less straight-up factual about it. It was about focusing on bringing our Hollywood connections and what happens if we bring that into the factual space. Since then we’ve decided that’s the direction we want to go in. It’s a snowball effect. You’ll really start to see a bigger pipeline of that content rolling out in 2016,” Feeney said.

Viewers today have become complacent with the storytelling techniques that had become a staple of documentary storytelling on channels like National Geographic. In a synergistic move with the channel’s corporate partner, 21st Century Fox, National Geographic is now leaning on Fox’s production experience in delivering higher-budget narrative storytelling to their channels.

In September 2015, the National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox announced that they had expanded a partnership that would include National Geographic’s cable channels, its 127-year-old magazine, digital and social platforms, maps, travel, and other media. The new for-profit company, National Geographic Partners, is separate from the National Geographic Society, which continues as a non-profit organisation for its work in science, exploration, and education.

For Blood Ivory, a new series that explores the connection between contraband animals and ivory with the trafficking of people, narcotics, and weapons, National Geographic hired Emmy winner Joshua Brand, best known for creating Northern Exposure and currently a writer on FX’s critically lauded The Americans.

Jacqui Feeney was enthusiastic about the series, which will serve as their first scripted series: “We’re bringing in strong Hollywood talent and designing it as a thriller. We’ve done that in the past as an investigative journalism piece. It was a story in the magazine and was a documentary on the channel, but now we want to do it as a dramatic story so that it really gets people to care about the issues.

“The thing that I’m always amazed about is National Geographic was founded on a mission of getting people to care about the Earth, so we’re taking what was done in a factual way historically and bringing in dramatic elements.”

Feeney admitted that when compared to competitor Discovery, National Geographic was late to television, but she emphasised the brand’s heritage with its other assets. Now, with 21st Century Fox’s investment in National Geographic, Feeney believes the time is right to tap into the broader framework of Fox to enable the various National Geographic platforms to work together as a more complete and better functioning organisation.

“Now where we’re at is saying, ‘If we make all the pieces work together, the asset that we bring to the table is Hollywood.’ Where we’re going is: What if we inject this Hollywood scale into these stories that we think are really important? Our focus is to amplify what we’re doing and make it more engaging,” Feeney said.

Recently Discovery announced a similar overhaul of its programming. Its intention is to move away from lean-back reality programming such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and embrace destination shows that encourage viewers to seek out the shows. This is the result of changing viewer behaviours, led by on-demand viewing services like Netflix.

For National Geographic, however, the changes are more complex. “It’s about what audiences are doing full stop,” Feeney said. “Part of our concept of audience is viewers, but also advertisers and our distribution partners.”

Discovery’s shift is, not insignificantly, about defining itself beyond the traditional US cable bundle. This, Feeney said, is not an issue at all for National Geographic. “I’d argue National Geographic’s brand has existed strongly in many other destinations beyond cable,” Feeney said defiantly. “If you look at the US, National Geographic has some of the highest performance in social media, compared to competitors. The magazine, in Australia, last time I saw it we were sixth in terms of readership in Australia. The magazine still is, from a subscription point of view, doing really well compared to a lot of print which is in decline.

“From a local perspective, I look at our TV reach, our digital reach, and our magazine reach and then the challenge going forward into 2016 is how do I make those pieces work synergistically? I wasn’t able to do that 18 months ago because every piece of that was owned and managed separately. Going forward I can think about the ways that we should be connecting.

“I would say that National Geographic has been connecting outside of that cable bundle. The real issue is what do we define as storytelling or engagement and what are the monetisation models on that? Cable distribution is one of the ways that we connect with our audiences. It’s where the premium TV sits, which is a vital part. We’re following audiences and we have to be where they are and manage different business models.”

With the shift by National Geographic towards high-budget programming that leans heavily on Hollywood connections, local producers may be concerned that the moves lead to fewer opportunities for local productions. Feeney assuaged these concerns and pointed out that they are still working on local commissions. “We have a good track record with Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo People and we’re still pushing commissions there.”

Feeney explained that they do have some commissions confirmed internally that are yet to be publicly announced. She pointed to the most fundamental issue that local producers should find comfort in: “It’s a business. Having the Australian dollar lower than it was a year ago and depending what happens with production offsets, all those things put us in a really good position. When I deal internationally and put forward Australian producers, I’m not having to argue about the quality of the talent here. It really comes down to economics.

“We have small amounts of money to commission locally. We have done some things. We did Outback Wrangler, which was the crocodile catcher. We produced that here for this market, but then we did sell it to, not the US, but the rest of the world for Nat Geo. I think that while there’s a lot of focus on producing the big high-end budget out of the US, we still think there’s room for some production at the local level. The majority of our funds are going into commissioning the big stuff. For us in Australia, they still think it’s important to have a small amount of local in the mix.”

Feeney takes pride in being able to put Australian producers into the global pitch process, but does suggest that for National Geographic’s core channel, that process is going to get more competitive regardless of where it’s coming from. “The decision making on that will be more centralised,” she said.

Courtney Monroe, the new global head of National Geographic, has recently been talking more to A List Hollywood talent. Feeney explained that “Because of having Peter Rice and James Murdoch more involved with the business, they’ve been matchmaking at the highest levels and what Courtney is finding is when she goes and talks to Darren Aronofsky or Ron Howard, they’re very excited by the content. We’re excited that we can get people with these kinds of story-making skillsets coming into the business.

“I still think there’s room for Australian producers and talent, but we’ll wait and see on that.”

Image: Story Of God with Morgan Freeman

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