How National Geographic’s Shows Tackle Climate Change Without Seeming Like ‘Homework’

Animals help, along with compelling imagery and storytelling

Polar bear walking on ice
Recent miniseries Hostile Planet focused on animals to educate viewers on climate change and preservation.
National Geographic/Tom Hugh Jones

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

The National Geographic brand has been covering climate change for more than five decades, but it’s only been three years since the National Geographic network, which debuted in 2001, has embraced the topic as a central component of its TV strategy.

“I think the belief at the time was that no one was going to watch that,” said National Geographic Global Networks president Courteney Monroe, who began to change that after she took over the U.S. network in 2014 and added global oversight a year later.

Since then, National Geographic has regularly tackled climate change through a variety of programs, including the 2016 documentary film Before the Flood (executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio), 2018 documentary Paris to Pittsburgh (about the actions individuals and local communities are taking to combat climate change) and most recently, the Emmy-nominated miniseries Hostile Planet (which aired last spring).

Monroe spoke with Adweek about the network’s shift in strategy when it comes to climate change, how she educates audiences about the topic without making the content feel like “spinach” and the companywide initiative on tap for next year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: This is a subject that has been part of your company’s DNA for quite a long time; this is more than just a network initiative for you, right?
Courteney Monroe: National Geographic has been in existence for 131 years, and I think for every single one of those years, that brand has been dedicated to inspiring people to care about the planet and its preservation. Climate change is core to that notion. We, as a brand—not on television, but through the magazine—first reported on actual climate change in February of 1967. This whole brand—the publishing organization, digital, magazine, television—holds true to the belief that storytelling has the power to change the world, and we focus on using our reach and storytelling to increase awareness of pressing issues that relate to the planet and covey the urgency of the problem. So it’s not new for us, and it’s not a political issue for us at all. We pride ourselves on being completely apolitical. We’re on the side of science and we’re on the side of the planet.

On the television side, we tackle it in a variety of ways. We’ve done very hard-hitting, on-the-nose climate change programming like Before the Flood, which was an account of the changes going on around the world due to climate change. And we distributed that film very differently. We didn’t just air it on the network; we gave it away for free—unauthenticated, commercial-free, on every single platform— because we care about the issue.

With Bloomberg Philanthropies, we did a documentary film called Paris to Pittsburgh, which focused on the action that individuals and communities and local governments in the U.S. can take to combat the threat of climate change. That was in the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. So we’ve done some very focused climate-change programming.

But I would actually argue that our broader dedication to natural history programming, which is celebrating the planet and the species that live on it, are all really designed to get back to that core goal of inspiring people to care about the issues that are facing the planet and care about preserving the planet and species.

How has that kind of programming evolved since you’ve been heading up the network?
In the immediate years before I came, the television business, when we were more in our reality show era, was not doing any of it. They were shying completely away from any programming, because I think the belief at the time was that no one was going to watch that. And look, there is a recognition that we all have to have that people watch television to be entertained and learn something from us, but it can’t feel like spinach. It can’t feel like homework.

So what we’ve tried to do is projects like Before the Flood is a perfect example, which was really compelling. You’re drawn in by Leonardo DiCaprio’s journey. We’re trying to up the level of entertainment in the storytelling. And then, we’re doing really awe-inspiring, very visually spectacular natural history programming like Hostile Planet, which at its core is really focused on the animals, which people love to watch. But really, the narrative of Hostile Planet was about how animals are being forced to adapt to the cruelest curveballs that are being thrown to them by this ever-changing and very volatile planet. So we’re trying to find ways to create programming that people are going to find compelling to watch, and also illuminating and inspiring.

I would argue our Jane Goodall doc [2017’s Jane] is the greatest piece of programming we’ve done that’s a love letter to the planet and why you should care. So it’s through really powerful storytelling that people will find compelling.

If the network wasn’t doing this kind of programming prior to your arrival, what was the first show that changed that?
Before the Flood. It was really the first piece of programming that we launched as part of our new premium programming strategy [in 2016]. And we were very noisy about it. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival exactly three years ago.

"People watch television to be entertained and learn something from us, but it can’t feel like spinach. It can’t feel like homework."
Courteney Monroe

You mentioned that the network is apolitical, yet climate change has suddenly become politicized. How do you walk that line with a topic is is now such a hot-button issue?
It’s crazy how anything these days can be weaponized. But as Susan Goldberg, who’s the editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, always says, we are on the side of science 100% of the time. … We have at our disposal by being aligned with the National Geographic Society—which is an incredible organization devoted to research and science—an army of researchers that we can tap into.

We are on the side of science and real scientists that the National Geographic Society invests in, and we stay true to those facts. How those facts get weaponized is out of our control, but I think the reason that we have been such a trusted brand for 131 years is because people can trust us. They know we’re credible with our facts, and we’re authentic in our presentation. So we try to stay out of all of that and stay focused on the issues that we care about.

What kind of storytelling methods do your viewers best respond to so that, as you said earlier, these programs don’t feel like spinach?
One of the ways that you can really tug on people’s hearts and connect emotionally is through animals. A lot of our natural history programming that puts wildlife at the center … again, Jane Goodell, her whole conversation efforts are around species. But in the end, it’s about the preservation of the planet. Different people connect with different programs and taken altogether, they form a patchwork of programming that is important. But in terms of programming that connects the most emotionally, it’s things like Hostile Planet and Planet of the Whales, which is something that we’re working on with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, where we’re filming the lives of five different whale species around the world.

Viewers connect with this awe-inspiring imagery, and you want to save the world to ensure these species are around forever. I wouldn’t say that’s the only way, but it’s certainly an ongoing way that we all use in our storytelling.

Between the programming you’ve aired in the past three years and the fact that the topic of climate is now being more widely embraced, how has it changed the projects being brought to you or that you’re looking for now?
We remain incredibly committed to it, and we have a lot in development and production. We’re soon going to announce a big cross-platform effort—across all of National Geographic—around Earth Day 2020, which is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We’re going to use that as a moment across all our platforms with a lot of content to shed new light on the importance and the urgency of the issue.

Our commitment is not going to wane at all. There was a time in our history on the television side where maybe we weren’t focused on it, but for me, using the power of our reach globally to tell these stories in a way that can be compelling, awe-inspiring and breathtaking, I think that we can tackle these harder-hitting topics in a way that doesn’t engender despair, but actually can be very inspiring.

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