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National Geographic Channel's 'Epic, Audacious' Upfront Previews Emphasis on Scripted Programs

David Letterman heads to India in return to TV

Hybrid miniseries Mars is the crown jewel in National Geographic Channel's upcoming slate. National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel is leveraging its global brand to take audiences and advertisers to new places—including the red planet.

Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, detailed a bold vision for the network, which she said will look markedly different by year's end. Instead of throwing a large upfront event for advertisers, Monroe is holding one-on-one meetings with select clients this week. Programming details were laid out at a news briefing at New York's Park Hyatt this morning.

"Our commitment to the new premium vision of the National Geographic Channel goes way beyond global television," said Toby Byrne, president of ad sales at Fox Networks Group.

That involves leveraging the National Geographic brand, which reaches 730 million consumers around the world every month. The network alone reaches 440 million households in 171 countries and 45 languages. Monroe said it's the largest TV network on Facebook and remains the No. 1 noncelebrity brand on Instagram.

"We are taking epic, audacious programming swings with much bigger budgets," said Monroe, and "investing heavily in marketing," much more than ever before, as the network looks to reach more upscale audiences and more millennials.

The highlight of the upcoming slate is Mars, a six-part hybrid miniseries—part scripted, part documentary—executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. "It is most emblematic of the scale and scope and the level of creative ambition that you can expect from us going forward," said Monroe.

Mars is a scripted drama about the human race's efforts to reach and colonize Mars, which is intercut with documentary-style footage and interviews with space exploration experts including Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Buzz Aldrin. The combination is "something original and dynamic for television," said Howard.

To promote the new concept across its platforms, National Geographic has planned a National Geographic Magazine cover story, a stand-alone book, a digital prequel series set to debut in August and kids media, among other offerings. Monroe will kick off Mars' marketing campaign in June, five months before its November premiere.

Many of the upcoming series and documentaries featured at the briefing were programs Monroe had discussed previously with Adweek, as she elaborated on the network's efforts to emphasize quality programming over quantity. But here are the new programming highlights discussed on Tuesday:

  • The climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, which originally aired on Showtime, will return for a second season, premiering in October. It will follow celebrity correspondents, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Cheadle, Jack Black and David Letterman, who filmed last week in India for his first TV project since leaving the Late Show last May.
  • The network will be making a bigger push into scripted series, which "is going to be a hallmark of our premium content," said Monroe. Killing Reagan, which like its previous Killing films are based on Bill O'Reilly's bestselling books, will premiere this fall, right before the election.
  • Earth Live, which Monroe called "the ultimate live broadcast from the natural world," is a two-hour live event that will be set in a studio, and throwing to wildlife cinematographers around the globe who are chronicling "major events," like an eagle giving birth, polar bears swimming in Norway or predators gathering around a watering hole.
  • National Geographic's iconic series Explorer will relaunch this fall as a weekly series, hosted by Richard Bacon. Each show will be filmed in front of a studio audience and combine field packages with in-studio commentary from celebrity guests and experts.
  • Origins, a new series featuring Brain Games host Jason Silva, is "the definitive series of man's achievements as a civilization," said Monroe. Each episode takes a major technological theme—fire, tools and transportation—and will show how it has evolved over decades and centuries.
  • Deep Freeze is a six-episode limited series, and the first long-form series ever shot in Antarctica. It follows the leading scientists of Scott Base on all their missions. "This is science with adrenaline junkies," said Monroe.
  • Lawless Oceans follows maritime investigator Karsten von Hoesslin as he attempts to solve the mystery of a real-life murder at sea.
  • Chain of Command, a 10-part documentary series, will offer "a 360-degree view of the fight against ISIS," as orders are passed from generals to the soldiers on the ground.

Monroe also discussed Nat Geo Wild, which she called "the only network on television 100 percent dedicated to animals and the people who love them." Upcoming shows on that network include Animal ER, which looks at emergency animal care in a south Texas veterinary hospital; Savage Kingdom, a six-part event series, with each episode presenting the battle from a different animal's point of view; and Project Puppy, which follows six families as they navigate puppy parenthood for the first 12 weeks.

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