National Geographic Pitches the Power of Storytelling, and Returning Franchises

The Disney deal is looming, but it’s ‘business as usual,’ said CEO

National Geographic's upfront slate includes the documentary Free Solo, about free climber Alex Honnold. National Geographic/Jimmy Chin
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National Geographic came into this year’s upfront intent on touting the success of its global rebrand from fall 2016 and nothing—not even the looming Disney-Fox deal, which could see it move to a new company next year—will cause it to lose focus.

So the network stuck to the game plan during Wednesday night’s upfront event, which it called “Further Front,” held at a five-story SoHo townhouse that it turned into the Nat Geo House.

“A year and a half ago, we embarked on this new strategy to really elevate our programming and ensure that we are the world’s leading destination for premium content around science and adventure and exploration. And that transformation has taken hold,” Courteney Monroe, CEO, National Geographic Global Networks, told Adweek. “Our upfront slate reaffirms our commitment to that big, bold, creatively ambitious, premium content, as well as our commitment to using the power of storytelling to change the world and amplify topics that matter.”

In this upfront, Monroe is hoping for more brand partnerships along the lines of Breaking2, the documentary National Geographic produced last year with Nike. The special, which aired ad-free in September, followed three of the world’s top distance runners as they spent a year refining their training with scientists from the Nike Sport Research Lab with the goal of becoming the first person to complete a marathon in under two hours.

“That is a great example of a brand who had never advertised with us before,” Monroe said of Nike. “We can have very unique conversations with advertisers about harnessing the power of the full National Geographic portfolio to amplify their brand’s story.” Between the network’s global reach, its digital and social footprints and National Geographic magazine “what we can bring to bear, to amplify both our own stories as well as the stories of our brands, is unrivaled in the marketplace.”

National Geographic is heading into the upfront with several returning franchises, including Season 2 of Mars, Season 3 of The Story of God With Morgan Freeman, another season of StarTalk (with Neil deGrasse Tyson), a new season of Cosmos (called Cosmos: Possible Worlds, also with deGrasse Tyson hosting and airing next spring) and a third season of Genius, which will focus on Frankenstein author Mary Shelley (the Picasso-centric Season 2 is airing now).

Monroe said that Story of God, Mars and Genius are National Geographic’s three most-watched series in network history.

In addition to those franchises, National Geographic announced several new shows and specials as part of its upfront slate:

  • Valley of the Boom is a six-episode limited series about the ’90s tech boom and bust of Silicon Valley. Monroe said it will be a scripted/unscripted hybrid series, like Mars; roughly 75 percent of it will be scripted and other 25 percent will use documentary footage and new interviews with the real players. The series will focus on the creation of the Netscape internet browser, (a social network precursor to Facebook) and Pixelon, which pioneered video compression technology. “The tone is very much like The Big Short, where we’re breaking the fourth wall and having a lot of fun with the material,” said Monroe.
  • Scripted series The Hot Zone, from executive producer Ridley Scott, is based on the Richard Preston bestseller about the Ebola virus and the efforts to prevent it from spreading to the human population.
  • The six-part docuseries Hostile Planet looks at the world’s most extreme environments and reveals how various animal species survive and thrive in them. “It’s beautiful, epic, natural history, but told with a very specific lens, which is the changing and very hostile planet, and how that is impacting species and their ability to thrive,” said Monroe.
  • Feature documentary Free Solo chronicles the world’s foremost free climber, Alex Honnold, who scales massive peaks without ropes (or “free solo”. Last June, he was the first person to free solo climb the rock face of Yosemite’s El Captian. “You know how it ends, and still, there are parts where you actually can’t watch. It’s visually spectacular and an unbelievable chronicle of unparalleled human achievement,” said Monroe. The documentary will get a festival run and limited theatrical release before having a global premiere on National Geographic Channel.
  • Following last year’s Earth Live, Yellowstone Live will be a four-day event showcasing the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park.
  • The special Apollo will recount the story of the Apollo space program, leading into the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

“This is now a continuation of strategy that’s working really well for us, and we’re really excited about what we have,” Monroe said. While National Geographic is sticking to its TV rebrand strategy from 2016, on Monday the company announced that its 130-year-old magazine will be getting an overhaul.

When it comes to the looming Disney-Fox merger, Monroe reiterated what she previously told Adweek: She, like the other networks involved in Disney’s pending $52.4 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox (including ABC, Fox and FX), won’t alter her upfront strategy, given that the deal could take another year to close.

“It’s such an exciting and energizing time at National Geographic,” she said. “We have no shortage of work to do as we head into the upfront. So it really is business as usual. I think our brand would fit very snugly with Disney, if that’s what ends up happening. But for now, we are very focused and not allowing us to get distracted.”

“This year’s upfront is going to operate exactly as is,” Joe Marchese, president of advertising revenue for Fox Networks Group, which includes National Geographic, told Adweek in February. “We have to operate that way for practical reasons as a business, but also because with these other companies, who knows what the future holds?”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.