In Overhaul, National Geographic Channel Stresses Quality Programming Over Quantity

Network's CEO promises big changes by year's end

National Geographic Channel will air tonight's premiere of He Named Me Malala without ads. Fox Searchlight Pictures

In 2015, there were 412 scripted series and around 750 unscripted series. And as TV is flooded with more content than ever before, National Geographic Channel is going against the current with a network and brand overhaul this year that eschews quantity in favor of quality.

"We've been playing a game for the past few years which is more of a tonnage play: lots and lots of lower-cost, more reality-show-type series," said National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe. "So, the strategy going forward is to do fewer overall, so we're not going to launch 50 series a year."

Instead, Monroe said, each show will be higher budget, have better production values and feature A-list talent. "We'll have fewer shows overall, but they will hopefully feel bigger and more impactful," she said. "And I think the complexion of our audience is going to evolve. We certainly want to retain our core audience, but this strategy is also about broadening to other audience segments as well."

Monroe says the network will look completely different by the end of the year "both in terms of content and also in the brand identity and presentation of the channel."

Going forward, she'll emphasize more premium content like tonight's broadcast premiere of He Named Me Malala, the 2015 documentary about Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The show is airing without ads ("It's an extraordinary film, and it was never conceived to be broken up for commercial breaks," said Monroe), though it will feature a mystery sponsor, who wants to remain under wraps until the broadcast. Subsequent airings, however, will have ad breaks.

Monroe is also moving the network more heavily into scripted programming. She noted that its three movies based on books by Bill O'Reilly—Killing Reagan, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus—were the network's highest-rated and most-viewed telecasts ever.

"So there's clearly an appetite for it," she said. "We're just taking a more aggressive foray into it and really looking to do series and potentially even recurring series."

That includes Mars, which will air later this year. The show from executive producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard is an event series set in 2034 about the first manned mission to Mars. Monroe is also developing a pair of scripted series: a show tentatively called Blood Ivory about the war on the animal kingdom and an adaptation of Annie Proulx's upcoming novel, Barkskins, about the destruction of the world's forests.

Despite the pivot toward scripted fare, Monroe said, "The majority of our programming hours will remain unscripted. That's our primary currency, but we're going to play in the space for the right projects."

The network has already lined up documentaries like Parched, from Alex Gibney, which investigates the global water crisis; a biopic from director Brett Morgen about primatologist Jane Goodall; an untitled documentary from Sebastian Junger about terrorism; and a documentary about the 1992 L.A. riots.

And the content isn't all that will be changing this year.

"I think the logo could use a refresher," Monroe said. "I come from marketing, so I think as you change your product, which is our programming, we'll probably have a new on-air look and feel as well." Though, given how iconic the National Geographic logo is, she won't be making any major changes to it. "I'm not changing the yellow border—that's our badge of honor, and that's sacred. But how we treat the whole on-air architecture and feel and the tone of voice of our marketing, I think it will evolve to mesh with this different breed of more premium programming."

Monroe, who joined National Geographic Channel as head of marketing in 2012 before getting promoted to CEO in 2014, will also be ramping up marketing efforts as she overhauls the network.

"We're significantly upping our investment in marketing as well," she said. "It's impossible to get the word out if you don't. I worked at HBO for a long time, and I used to say that my goal there was to make the marketing as innovative as the programming itself. And I still feel that's really important." 

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