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

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

@TLStanleyLA 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.