Nat Geo is augmenting the great outdoors with high-end, scripted shows such as Genius. Is the move batty or brilliant, wonders Stuart Kemp
Racy, raunchy and risky are three words not usually associated with National Geographic. But the brand’s first foray into high-end scripted television, the 10-part Genius about the life and times of Albert Einstein, gives viewers an eyeful in its very first episode.
“Monogamy is not natural, it is a construct of religious authority,” theorises Geoffrey Rush playing the married physicist, as he pleasures a lover, pants around his ankles, pressed up against a blackboard covered in equations.
The series encapsulates the new-look content strategy of National Geographic Partners, a joint venture between the National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox. Fox has a 73% stake in the partnership, with the board of directors split 50:50 between executives from the two organisations. The Chair is Peter Rice, CEO of Fox Networks Group.
The new venture brings together National Geographic’s bouquet of global television channels and its media and consumer-oriented brands, such as National Geographic Magazines and National Geographic Studios, under one umbrella.
Enders Analysis director of TV research Toby Syfret says that times are tough for factual broadcast channels. “They’re doing it to sex up their schedule,” he says. “The amount of scripted drama made in the past few years has more than doubled, with Netflix and Amazon holding a terrific advantage in the marketplace.”
Genius has a whiff of Fox daring mixed with the scent of expensive, slick television from experienced programme makers, and offers a taste of the channel’s ambitions.
The partners agreed that National Geographic should move away from a schedule heavy on reality shows, such as Swamp People, Rocket City Rednecks and Doomsday Preppers, to programmes for a more upmarket demographic.
Left Bank Pictures CEO Andy Harries says that the move comes at a time when drama is a driving force for established broadcasters and powerful, online, subscription-based operators alike. “Drama remains empowering, but it is challenging to come up with programmes that are going to make some noise in a busy marketplace,” he says.
“Look what Vikings did for History channel,” adds Harries, whose own company produces the Golden Globe-winning show The Crown with Sony Pictures Television for Netflix. “The show helped redefine that channel.”
National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe says that the switch in strategy is motivated by the desire to build on the National Geographic brand while not attempting to chase audiences from competitors such as History or Discovery. “It is about pursuing a programming strategy that is built, first and foremost, on quality and distinctiveness and not on quantity and a ton of hours,” she says. “We’re spending a lot more money against fewer overall hours.”
Monroe knows a thing or two about high-end, event television, having arrived at the US network six years ago fresh from 13 years in marketing at HBO.
Harries notes that the move into scripted drama should broaden the appeal of National Geographic’s television channels. “Fox is a savvy business operator and it will have worked on the numbers and projections and strategy for a while,” he says.
"The move is certainly ballsy in a global market place awash with quality television and well-healed backers all vying for eyeballs and advertising revenue."
Monroe declines to reveal an exact figure for her scripted drama war chest. But she says that reported sums of $400m to make 150 hours are “a little on the high side”.
What cannot be played down is the risk on betting big on fewer shows for the bouquet of channels.
“They need to consider the move carefully,” suggests Syfret. “It is a good thing to try but it is by no means certain that it will be a success.”
Genius was positioned as an event series when it premiered globally on 25 April. It aims to deliver an insight into both the great scientist’s work and his tumultuous private life.
The series is the first in what will be a triptych of dramatic portraits, with two further 10-part seasons on yet-to-be-revealed subjects already green-lit.
From now on, the network will put original programming front and centre, says Monroe. This will run alongside “a ton of amazing library content”, plus shows picked from National Geographic’s “treasure trove of quality international content”.
“Our aim is to become the world’s leading destination for premium content around science, adventure, exploration and the exploration of ideas,” says Monroe. “Scripted is a premium way to attract audiences and advertisers.” Some 60% of US viewers for the first episode of Genius were new to the National Geographic channel, she says.
Harries comments that it is a “narrow channel and they’re trying to supersize it with drama”. The move is certainly ballsy in a global market place awash with quality television and well-healed backers all vying for eyeballs and advertising revenue.
Glossy and expensive, Genius also shouts out to Hollywood and beyond that there’s another drama player in town looking for partners. One that is ready to vie with rival networks, the established online giants Netflix and Amazon, and with the upstart subscription streaming service YouTube Red.
Genius marks Oscar-winning film-maker Ron Howard’s debut in scripted drama series, boasts movie production values and has a glittering cast led by Rush.
Among its heavyweight backers are Hollywood’s very own brains trust, Imagine Entertainment, run by Howard and Brian Grazer, and Fox 21 Television Studios.
“[Howard and Grazer] are intimately familiar with our ambitious new strategy and were really the first big Hollywood creative talent to come on board with us,” says Monroe.
National Geographic had already worked with Imagine on a scripted documentary hybrid show, Mars, which aired globally last autumn. A second visit to Mars is due next year.
Such hybrid shows are not everyone’s cup of tea. One US critic described Mars as “a weird attempt to blend documentary and sci-fi” that resulted in “an exquisite botch of both”.
Monroe says that scripted commissions will not necessarily be period pieces. The Long Road Home – based on former ABC journalist Martha Raddatz’s best-selling book about a US army unit in Sadr City, Iraq, in 2004 – is now in production.
The new strategy is providing opportunities for British programme makers. With sterling weak and generous tax breaks for big-budget television, the UK is well placed to benefit.
Nat Geo is also partnering with Nutopia, the company founded and run by former BBC Two controller and Discovery Networks chief Jane Root, to make One Strange Rock with film-maker Darren Aronofsky. Billed as Planet Earth meets Cosmos meets Gravity, the 10-part scripted documentary hybrid draws on natural history and earth science, and promises to shoot some of its material in space.
The primary home for the scripted content is National Geographic’s international channels. Monroe works closely with the Fox Networks Group in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia: Fox looks after the multi-territory network, which reaches over 730 million people across 171 countries and broadcasts in 45 languages. The business model rests on a mix of advertising revenue and subscription fees.
In the UK, Genius debuted on Sky Atlantic and the National Geographic channel simultaneously.
“It makes sense for a network majority owned by Fox to put it on Sky Atlantic in the UK to promote it and help drive people back to National Geographic’s channels,” observes Syfret.
It is also the first empirical test of whether Nat Geo’s theory about Einstein turns out to be a relatively successful one.