National Geographic Dares to Think Outside the (Yellow) Box With Valley of the Boom

Network's scripted series channels dot-com's 1990s heyday

(L. to r.) John Karna stars as Netscape’s visionary founder, Marc Andreessen; Bradley Whitford as Netscape’s iconic CEO, Jim Barksdale; and Steve Zahn as Pixelon founder 'Michael Fenne,' aka conman David Kim Stanley. Justin Stephens
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Matthew Carnahan cannot be accused of false advertising.

The creator of Valley of the Boom, premiering Jan. 13 on Nat Geo, pitched the genre-bending scripted-and-documentary hybrid as a project that would elasticize and perhaps even traumatize the storied cable network.

“I told them I was going to blow up their perfect gold box,” Carnahan says, referring to the iconic yellow border that serves as a stylistic and brand template. “I used almost those exact words.”

His plan may have sounded like madness, but there was a method to it, Carnahan promised the channel’s execs. He planned to infuse comedy and drama, talking-head interviews, rap battles, flash mobs and other unconventional elements—expressionist dance number, anyone?—into the origin story of the dot-com boom of the 1990s. (Internet 1.0, if you will.)

“I wanted to do something as disruptive as these founders and makers had done with their tech and their approach to business,” he says of the idea to do a TV version of The Big Short, but on steroids. “I said, ‘This is not just gonna be straight geekery. This is gonna be a party.’”

Hearing the concept made Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, bust out her two favorite words: bonkers and bananas.

She was sold.

“It’s a little wacky, and I say that in the most positive and affectionate way,” Monroe says of the six-part Silicon Valley-set series. “It’s super disruptive, really unpredictable and wildly fun. It was such an enticing approach for us, though it’s very different than anything we’ve done before.”

It wasn’t the reaction Carnahan (House of Lies) thought he’d get. “To their credit, they didn’t balk—they were delighted,” he says. “In some weird sideways way, it does embrace the whole Nat Geo universe.”

That world has been methodically expanding, with Monroe leading a global rebrand over the past two years aimed at stretching beyond the typical Nat Geo nature, space and science documentaries to encompass dramatic series like Genius and hybrid-format shows such as Mars.

Though Monroe says nonfiction storytelling will continue to make up “the lion’s share” of the network (pun intended), she and her team will keep taking “big, entertaining, creatively ambitious swings that are very much aligned with the Nat Geo brand” in the scripted arena.

The move comes at a time when other cable nets, including A&E and Discovery, have pulled back on the expensive genre, citing fierce competition from streaming services. There’s also a mega-merger as a backdrop: The Walt Disney Co. scooped up most of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment and media assets, including Nat Geo, in a $71.3 billion acquisition blessed by shareholders in July. Leadership and strategy for Nat Geo remains unchanged.

The network, Monroe says, will continue to carefully pick its scripted battles. Among the projects ahead: the third season of Genius, which will center on Frankenstein author Mary Shelley; Ridley Scott’s limited series, The Hot Zone, starring Julianna Margulies and based on the best-seller about the origins of the Ebola virus; and Scott Rudin’s 10-episode Barkskins, from E. Annie Proulx’s “towering work of environmental fiction” that traces America’s deforestation over hundreds of years.

Nat Geo will plumb Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the introduction of the birth control pill, war-torn Syria and unsung heroes in tech, science and innovation (in the vein of Hidden Figures) for future marquee shows.

There’s still plenty of historically Nat Geo-style programming on the schedule, including a live special about animals in Yellowstone National Park and well-watched shows like The Story of God With Morgan Freeman and Darren Aronofsky’s One Strange Rock. Execs are also considering a deeper dive into co-branded specials like 2017’s Breaking2 with Nike.

“We’ll never be an all-scripted or even majority-scripted network,” Monroe says. “But there are certain stories that we have an absolute right and permission to tell in drama.”

That’s where Valley of the Boom fits in, Monroe says, because it’s an adventurous, culture-changing subject with global implications.

Steve Zahn plays Pixelon founder “Michael Fenne,” aka conman David Kim Stanley.
National Geographic/Bettina Strauss

Even so, the tone of the series, which at one point uses a 10-year-old math whiz to explain the intricacies of IPOs and has characters frequently breaking the fourth wall, puts it in a class by itself.

This new mashup harks back to “the Greek chorus and Shakespearean asides,” says Bradley Whitford, who stars as Netscape’s iconic CEO, Jim Barksdale. “It’s a very brave way to play with storytelling. It has a kind of joyous, nonlinear wildness about it, done in a way that resonates with the material.”

The approach is part of Carnahan’s pledge to “evoke the period in its essence rather than just reciting the facts to you,” he says.

If it felt like a risk for Nat Geo, the talent involved had little inkling of that, according to Steve Zahn, who plays the fugitive founder (“Michael Fenne”) of the video broadcast startup Pixelon.

“They reminded me of HBO,” Zahn says of the cable channel’s execs. “They were hands-off but hands-on.”

Of the shooting in Vancouver, he says, “They were around a lot, which is usually the kiss of death. But it was the total opposite. This is the way it should be done.”

Nat Geo, which has committed “one of the biggest marketing budgets” of the year to Valley, looks at the series as a way to broaden its audience and grab some younger viewers, says Jill Cress, the channel’s chief marketing and communications officer.

At the upcoming CES in Las Vegas, Valley will have a significant presence. The debut of the series turned out to be fortuitous timing with the annual expo, which attracted upward of 180,000 people in 2018.

A partnership with Wired on the CES floor will hand out a promotional issue of the magazine filled with 1990s throwback content and retro-style ads for the show. Nat Geo will sponsor Wired’s live blog, re-create ’90s internet cafes and feature series stars for on-site stumping.

A giant digital billboard outside the airport will read, “CES taxi lines—as slow as the internet of the ’90s.”

The Vegas outreach comes on the heels of a WeWork alliance in December that put the show in front of some of today’s budding entrepreneurs with vintage video games, period-perfect swag, speakers and workshops at locations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

For the overarching effort to draw a crowd, the channel recruited tech community influencers, including executive producer Arianna Huffington, held screenings at Google headquarters, MIT, the University of California, Berkeley and other campuses, and released the first two episodes online on Dec. 21 to try to capture holiday downtime.

The ads themselves are taking advantage of recognizable audio cues (the dial-up modem’s screech) and familiar ’90s tropes. Nat Geo also has linked with Reddit, IMDb, CollegeHumor and other brands for marketing that aims to be “big, impactful and buzzworthy,” Cress says.

“Our audience cares about context and information,” Cress says, noting that there will be short “fun fact” videos, search-based advertising, ties to STEM groups and “high-impact digital media” to round out the marketing.

(L. to r.) Dakota Shapiro as Stephan Paternot; Lamorne Harris as Darrin Morris and Oliver Cooper as Todd Krizelman
National Geographic

The network hopes that early word of mouth, including a Tribeca Film Festival sneak peek, will translate to solid ratings for Valley, which also stars Lamorne Morris and John Karna, along with real-life tech titans who played pivotal roles in building the internet darlings Netscape, Pixelon and theglobe.com.

Carnahan, working with production house STXtv, spent months identifying the right brands to focus on for Valley’s three main interlocking stories, sprinkling in others like Ferrari (for its massive sales rush in the Bay Area) and SFgirl.com, a must-read insider blog that outlasted some of the corporations it followed and hosted “pink slip parties” during the bust.

Netscape, with its groundbreaking, internet-opening Navigator browser, was “completely obvious,” Carnahan says, because it was the David to Microsoft’s Goliath. It also had a powerful triumvirate at the top: visionary founder Marc Andreessen and business legends Barksdale and Jim Clark.

Theglobe.com, with 22-year-old Cornell wunderkinds as founders, got the nod because it was the forerunner to Facebook and largely responsible for setting off IPO mania.

Pixelon, which promised more than it could ever deliver in the pre-YouTube digital video space and quickly went bankrupt, “seemed like the perfect foil to the other two stories,” Carnahan says, noting that its shady, charismatic leader “is a staple of any gold rush.”

Zahn says he didn’t need much convincing beyond the first 10 pages of the script to play Pixelon’s portly, bleach-blonde, Appalachia-born evangelist-CEO.

“The ramen-noodle wig, the fat suit, the interpretive dance—I was all in,” Zahn says of Michael Fenne, aka David Kim Stanley. “It’s an incredible part because this is a guy who felt like God was touching his sleeves. It’s one of my favorite gigs by far.”

Zahn isn’t an early tech adopter (he was still using a flip phone at the beginning of the decade), though he recalls hearing about the tumultuous paths of various startups.

“It was such an incredible time, with people throwing money at ideas that weren’t even tangible things,” he says. “The internet is one of the greatest inventions in mankind, rivaling the railroad and the automobile.”

The real Stanley, who burned through a reported $15 million on Pixelon’s elaborate coming-out party in Vegas (see sidebar), declined to participate in the series. But other founders, former executives and employees did, with Netscape’s Barksdale and Clark and theglobe’s Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman among those providing poignant commentary on their wild rides.

“It was bittersweet because I relived the story beat by beat, including the impact we had, the bubble bursting and it all slipping through our fingers,” Paternot says. “It forced me to revisit those feelings.”

Airing the show now, in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, rampant online trolling and cyberbullying, privacy concerns and other internet woes, shines a light on founders’ original intentions.

The early days of Silicon Valley “felt like the ’60s, where everything was going to be beautiful and there was no downside,” Whitford says. “What we’ve experienced since is a loss of innocence.”

Paternot agrees, saying, “The original utopian dream has gotten completely deformed.”

There’s no commitment yet for another season—say, an exploration of the following decade—but Monroe suspects that Carnahan “has more stories in him” on the topic. She’s right, the showrunner says.

“I now realize how important the internet is in the trajectory of our lives and our children’s lives,” he says, “for better and for worse.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 7, 2019, issue of Brandweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
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