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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“I don’t want to do Planet Earth from 10 years ago,” says National Geographic’s global networks CEO Courteney Monroe, referring to the then-game-changing nature series on Discovery. “If we’re going to do natural history and big science, I want to do the badass version of that.” “Badass” is one of several descriptors the Washington, D.C.-based Monroe, 46, employs for her new vision for a U.S. cable network better known for reality shows about survivalists, fishermen and doomsday preppers. Other terms not previously part of the Nat Geo lexicon: “big budget” and “A-list.” Monroe, elevated in mid-November from overseeing 200 employees at the U.S. channels division to her current role atop a global portfolio with distribution in 171 countries and 45 languages, got approval from the board for her ambitious plan — “quality over quantity,” she says, not the other way around — and has spent recent months pitching it around Hollywood.
Making it all possible is corporate parent 21st Century Fox, which revealed in September that it will invest $725 million and up its ownership stake as the networks become a growth priority for new CEO James Murdoch and his brother Lachlan. Already, Monroe has scored high-profile projects from Brian Grazer, Alex Gibney and Darren Aronofsky. It’s all relatively new territory for the Wharton MBA, who spent the bulk of her career at HBO, where she ran marketing. She joined Nat Geo in a CMO role in early 2012 and was elevated to CEO three years later when former chiefs David Lyle and Howard T. Owens were pushed out amid stalled ratings. Working closely with Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice, Monroe now is tasked with bucking the industrywide trend of lower ratings with programming for a suite of global channels, including Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Mundo. Over Cobb salads at the Beverly Wilshire, where the married mother of two often stays during her monthly trips to Los Angeles, she revealed her programming vision for the first time.
The Williams alum keeps a stack of business and leadership books on her coffee table. Favorites include Blockbusters and Creativity, Inc., both of which she distributed to her entire staff, along with The First 90 Days, a gift from Fox International Channels chief Hernan Lopez when she became CEO.
You’ve been making the rounds selling the new Nat Geo. What’s the pitch?
I’m on the charm offensive. (Laughs.) Look, it’s no secret this landscape is changing at an unprecedented pace. The market increasingly only favors the best content and the most resonant brands — there isn’t a way to break through without being exceptional, and in the past few years, we’ve not been exceptional. The National Geographic brand is this preeminent, global brand. It’s distinctive and actually stands for something. Now there are some solid, good shows and it’s profitable, but we’ve never really lived up to the promise of it, either from a ratings perspective or from a brand perspective.
In the past few years, we’ve just been too concerned about chasing the audiences of some of our competitors and playing more of a quantity over quality game — a lot of more low-cost hours. This new vision is about quality over quantity. Fewer hours overall, but hours that are significantly higher budget and are high-quality swings from A-level talent.
Monroe’s office is lined with pictures, including one of her with Fox’s Rice, National Geographic Society’s Gary Knell and first lady Michelle Obama at a Got Your 6 event the channel hosted. She also keeps a shot of The Sopranos, the first series she worked on as a marketing executive at HBO.
But still in the science space. How do you avoid veering into eat-your-vegetables territory?
Cosmos was a real tipping point where we saw an appetite for science content. Not boring science or an academic documentary, which nobody is going to watch, myself included. It has to be Hollywood storytelling with incredible CGI and incredible people behind and in front of the camera who know how to tell stories in really entertaining ways.
And the response to your pitches?
We haven’t historically been a port of call for the A-level, and that’s partly because premium programming hasn’t been our ambition and we haven’t been able to afford it. Fox is investing heavily in this new vision, as is The National Geographic Society, so we’re able to have conversations that we haven’t before.
The reality genre, led by cable’s male-skewing fare, hasn’t generated new hits of late. What happened?
There are still some successful franchises. Wicked Tuna still performs for us, for instance. But there’s been a real saturation, and viewer interest in that type of programming has diminished. Truth be told, that genre of programming was never as successful here as it was on other networks, and that’s because I don’t believe people come to us to watch that.
You’ve been looking to hire a head of scripted. What will be the scripted vs. unscripted split?
What we’ve seen with [Bill O’Reilly’s] Killing films is that our viewers do have an appetite for scripted, and we were able to attract people to our network who don’t typically watch it. Scripted doesn’t have to be history, but some degree of factual authenticity is really important. So you’re not going to see dragons here.
If you could pluck a show from another network, which would it be?
If The Americans were based on real people, that’d be great for us. Unscripted? HBO’s Vice.
What have your interactions with James and Lachlan Murdoch entailed?
Their level of engagement in our business, given how small a part of the portfolio it is, has been astonishing. James, Lachlan and Peter Rice havebeen very involved in helping to crystallize the vision and helping me build relationships and open doors to creators who might not have necessarily thought to work with us.
Artwork from her 9-year-old daughter, Lola.
We were talking about [Earth science series] One Strange Rock and the fact that we want to pair somebody with [Planet Earth producers] Nutopia for a really fresh take on it, and it was Peter who said, “You know, Darren Aronofsky has a real personal interest in this subject matter.” We would never have known that. We called him, and we had a meeting in two days. And we have the ability to take advantage of Scott Rudin, who has an overall deal with Peter’s group, or we’re able to hire a writer on The Americans, Josh Brand, who has an overall with FXP, to write the pilot for our Blood Ivory scripted series.
Rupert Murdoch is a prominent climate-change denier. Critics say Fox’s increased ownership will lead to a political agenda at Nat Geo. Thoughts?
First, the Murdochs have had the majority ownership since the network was born. I’ve been here for almost four years, and they’ve never given a note. They’ve never said, “Don’t do that program, do this program.” Never. And if you need any evidence, even in the recent past, we greenlit Years of Living Dangerously and a global water-crisis documentary with Alex Gibney, and I didn’t hear a peep.
Your job recently became a global one. How has that impacted your approach to content?
Well, one idea we were kicking around, and still are, is a talk show. What is our version of a John Oliver? But what I learned is that no talk shows translate around the world. Even the most successful ones here don’t do well because a lot of the zeitgeisty things they talk about are very U.S. specific. So we very well may not do it now because we’re looking for big, global shows.
Monroe’s Cannes Lion, which she received for her work at HBO, where she spent more than a decade.
How will Bill O’Reilly — with whom Nat Geo has made three Killing movies and ordered a fourth, Killing Reagan, and recently a fifth, Killing Patton — fit into your vision for a more premium future?
The Killing films are the three highest ratings we’ve ever done, and he has really helped get the word out and promote them. So I’m happy to be doing Killing Reagan, and we’re out with Scott Free talking to writers now. We’re looking for a caliber of writer that we haven’t had previously, so it’s in keeping with this vision of elevating the quality. It’s about how do we make it better and bring it to the A-level whereas maybe in the past we hadn’t.
You bought the doc He Named Me Malala with Fox Searchlight. Should we expect more feature docs?
We did Restrepo about five years ago and then for whatever reason abandoned the space. We should 100 percent be in the feature doc space, but in the same way that I’m thinking about scripted, it’s not a tonnage play. It’s about finding those right opportunities for our brand. In the doc space, it’s even easier than in the scripted space to convince big names to do something for National Geographic because it feels like our rightful heritage. We’re talking to a lot of them.
You were appointed CEO in spring 2014, in a shake-up that saw your bosses pushed out. How did it go down?
I was shocked when they came to me. I was 100 percent convinced that they were calling me about moving to L.A. to run marketing for Fox. I knew they were in the market [to fill that job] at that time, and I didn’t have any idea they were thinking of making a leadership change here. Nor did I think I was somebody whom they would consider for it, by the way. It was this very bittersweet moment for me because I’d really enjoyed working with the previous leadership team but it was also a big, juicy and really scary challenge.
Past and present bosses aside, who are your industry role models?
I don’t know her but I look at Bonnie Hammer’s career and I’m amazed by her. And then I have so much admiration and respect for John Landgraf [at FX]. I’d be served well if at every juncture that I’m not sure which way to go, I just said, “What would John Landgraf do?” You can quote me on that — I might be embarrassed when I see him, but that’s really how I feel.
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