The new executive team at National Geographic Channel is shaking up the network known for overtly well-meaning television with an upfront slate featuring competition reality and docuseries starring quirky characters engaged and in odd and/or dangerous jobs.
The network announced four new series for the 2012-13 season. Brain Games is a series version of the network’s popular 2011 special. Docuseries are American Chainsaw, about chainsaw sculptor Jesse “The Machine” Green; Bid & Destroy, set at New England’s Danley Demolition Co.; and Jersey Combat, about the owner of a New Jersey military artifacts warehouse.
“It’s a bit more sudden than an evolution but certainly less bloody than a revolution,” NatGeo CEO David Lyle told The Hollywood Reporter.
They join previously announced series Wicked Tuna, which follows bluefin tuna fishermen in Gloucester, Mass., and Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?, which has contestants pitting their brawn and ingenuity against the country’s top scouts in challenges culled from the 100-year-old Boy Scout Handbook.
The network’s new slate hails from A-list reality shops including Thom Beers’ Original Productions (Boy Scout), Craig Piligian‘s Pilgrim Studio (Tuna) and Leftfield Pictures (Bid & Destroy), which produces History’s top-rated Pawn Stars.
“David and I come out of the production community,” said National Geographic Channels president Howard Owens, the former Reveille managing director who joined NatGeo in November. “This is an opportunity for us to capitalize on those relationships. We want to be in business with the best.”
But they stressed that their mission is to broaden NatGeo’s storytelling, not sacrifice the august National Geographic Society’s rigorous adherence to fact-based entertainment.
“It’s a bigger, bolder bet on programming,” said Michael Cascio, executive vp programming at NatGeo.
“Sure, we use contemporary storytelling to go into the characters’ lives,” added Lyle, who also did a stint at FremantleMedia. “But it’s not a U-turn. It’s actually adding to what’s already there.”
For instance, the sculptors featured in American Chainsaw use only dead trees, stressing recycling. The Tuna fisherman use sustainable fishing methods, and the show’s multiplatform initiative will include material about bluefin conservation efforts. And Tougher Than a Boy Scout will showcase the Boy Scouts’ tenets of self-sufficiency and preparedness. But Lyle joked that Beers was spurred to do the series out of a boyhood inferiority complex stoked by never achieving Eagle Scout, the highest Boy Scout rank.
And with Alaska State Troopers, Border Wars, Doomsday Preppers, Hard Time, Locked Up Abroad, Rocket City Rednecks and Taboo all returning next season, the network already has made inroads with noisy unscripted programming that has helped NatGeo reduce its viewer median age to 45.
The network also is teaming with high-profile creatives on multiple specials including Killing Lincoln, from Ridley and Tony Scott and based on the best-selling book about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and Deepsea Challenge, which follows National Geographic Explorer-in-Resident James Cameron to the deepest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Cameron successfully completed his 6.8-mile descent Sunday evening, returning to the surface a few minutes before 6 p.m. ET. His 24-foot-long submersible was fitted with multiple cameras. In addition to the NatGeo special, Cameron plans to make multiple features, including a 3D film for Imax theaters. His is the first manned mission to the Trench in 52 years and only the second ever. And Cameron is the first to make the dive solo.
And NatGeo will give its core audience a nostalgic look at their formative years with The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us. The special looks at the people (Madonna, Bruce Springsteen), decisions (Ronald Reagan’s entreaty to “tear down that wall”) and inventions (Rubik’s Cube, mobile phones) that changed the culture. And next year, the network will mark the Society’s 125th anniversary with a special look back at breakthrough National Geographic expeditions that defined an era while also examining the future of sea and air exploration.
Spinoff network Nat Geo Wild – launched two years ago – also is taking a page from the contemporary playbook while building on existing franchises. Wild will launch four news series including a competition reality project with popular Dog Whisperer star Cesar Millan. Leader of the Pack will have Millan working with so-called “unadoptable” dogs and families vying to adopt them. The series aims to raise awareness about canine abandonment. Animal Intervention has wildlife expert Donald Schultz and actress and animal advocate Alison Eastwood (whose stepmother Dina Eastwood will be featured in an E! reality show) finding healthy living environments for neglected animals. Alpha Dogs goes behind the scenes at Indiana’s Vohne Liche Kennels, the elite K-9 military training facility that trained Cairo, the dog that accompanied SEAL Team 6 on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Ultimate Animal Countdown highlights animals’ incredible feats — including the speed of a cheetah, which can run the 100-meter dash in 3.76 seconds — in a count down format.
“The audience is far more flexible in where we can take our brand,” said Wild senior vp Geoff Daniels, adding that the television screen, “is not a box, it’s a portal.”
Returning Wild series include The Incredible Dr. Pol, the network’s highest-rated series in 2011; Man v. Monsters; and Wild Case Files.
Upcoming specials include Kingdom of the Oceans, about the skills of marine animals, and new iterations of popular specials Unlikely Animal Friends and Big Cat Week, which has been the network’s highest-rated week each of the three years it’s been on.