There weren’t many cheering Murdoch-owned 21st Century Fox’s Fall 2015 purchase of a controlling stake of National Geographic and most of its media properties, especially when the finalization of the purchase was punctuated by a round of layoffs that was the biggest culling in the org’s history.
But a new piece by Felix Gillette in Bloomberg Businessweek, suggests that, at least as applies to its TV network, things have gotten better. And by better, we mean more true to National Geographic’s roots.
In the years leading up to the purchase, things weren’t going so well between NatGeo and News Corp–which had been a partner on the National Geographic Channel since its inception–mainly because of tension that arose from the reality show direction its programming had taken. Yes, Wicked Tuna was popular, but it was also about fishermen going after a massively depleted fish population, which is why National Geographic Society unsuccessfully tried to prevent the show from making it to air.
The channel was heading into a Ship of Theseus problem that a lot of cable networks have encountered as they shed their previous programming profiles in favor of profitability in the age of reality TV: If everything has changed, is the thing still itself? The answer often seems to be, if it’s making money, does it matter?
With NGS no longer exerting any control, that conversion of the channel into low-budget, high-profit, topically questionable reality would be inexorable, would it not? A pre-sale change of TV network CEOs, as well as a look into just who was behind the sale indicates not.
Courteney Monroe, a former HBO evp who became network CEO in 2014, wanted to try a new path forward, and her idea, as Gillette described it, of the network “as a kind of HBO for science and adventure programming” has received support from above:
A new programming vision began to take shape. The shifting strategy was informed, in part, by the commercial success of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The 13-part documentary series, which aired in 2014 and starred astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was produced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and ran across several networks owned by Fox, including NatGeo. Cosmos applied rich, Hollywood production values to a wonky, scientific subject. Viewers and advertisers loved it.
In January 2015, Monroe got a call from Peter Rice, chairman and CEO at Fox Networks Group. “He said, ‘What if we blew up what we are doing?’ ” Monroe recalls. “ ‘You worked at HBO for a long time. What does the HBO version of National Geographic look like?’ ” In April of that year, Monroe presented a new, upscale version to the network’s board. James Murdoch sat in on the meeting. “It was universally embraced,” says Monroe.
And James Murdoch, writes Gillette, is the one “who drove the deal” to purchase NatGeo. James Murdoch, is also, apparently, not quite like the rest of his family.
“[He] came and spent time with the trustees,” says Jean Case, chairman of the society’s board. “We became sufficiently convinced that his passions in these areas are very real.” Known among business associates as the most environmentally progressive of the Murdoch clan, he and his wife, Kathryn, run Quadrivium, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to a range of causes, including scientific education and the protection of oceanic fisheries and other natural resources. According to biographer Michael Wolff, Rupert sometimes refers to James as his “tree-hugger son.”
So instead of naked people doing something, somewhere, National Geographic Channel is getting Alex Gibney “producing a miniseries about the global water crisis,” a Jane Goodall biopic and a series about Chernobyl from Scott Rudin.
If it works, it’s the kind of success you can have no qualms being proud of.
Read the whole piece here.