Nat Geo Global CEO on Working With the Murdochs and Competing With Selena Gomez

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Courteney Monroe

Courteney Monroe discusses her network's original content push but tells attendees at the Edinburgh Television Festival that Nat Geo will never go all 'Game of Thrones' and jump the dragon.

National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe on Thursday touted her team's original content push and the importance of top creatives in bringing shows with global appeal to the network.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, she also discussed working with the Murdoch family since 21st Century Fox increased its stake in the National Geographic brand. 

Asked if the Murdochs and National Geographic weren't strange bedfellows, Monroe said "we get that question a lot," and the answer was no. Fox and the company have been partners for 20 years, and Fox increased its investment because of its "belief in the power of this brand," she added. "The Murdochs are lovers of this brand. This is why they have increased their investment."

The exec added: "Under no circumstances has a Murdoch, or anyone for that matter, called to say you have to do this program" or not do another show. "They are great, great supporters, Fox, of what we are doing." She also highlighted that Fox CEO James Murdoch and his wife are "avid environmentalists."

Overall, compared to the size of its financial contribution to Fox, Nat Geo is getting an "outsized level of engagement from James and [his brother] Lachlan," Monroe said.  

21st Century Fox has made Nat Geo a growth focus in recent years. Monroe was promoted to CEO of National Geographic Global Networks in late 2015 after the National Geographic Society and Fox expanded their partnership.

Monroe, a former HBO marketing executive, on Thursday touted such Nat Geo original scripted series as Genius, starring Geoffrey Rush, the upcoming The Long Road Home and the upcoming One Strange Rock from Darren Aronofsky. She called the latter "one of the big, epic, very ambitious swings" and “big global event television" play that is "emblematic of our ambitions." 

After highlighting that Nat Geo has been looking to attract A-list talent for its originals, Monroe emphasized that "the idea is not to just slap an A-list star into something." She continued, "I think that that has been sort of misconstrued in the marketplace, because we have gotten pitches like, 'Here is the idea, and oh, by the way, we will just get this talent attached as an executive producer.' That's not what it's about." Concluded Monroe: "We want to work with A-list talent, both behind and in front of the camera, because we want to tell the best stories we can. But that is not just a vanity play or just for publicity. ... There has to be a real creative reason that a person is attached."

The exec then mentioned how at Nat Geo's advertising upfront event this year "we had lots of fancy people — we had Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and we had Geoffrey Rush and very acclaimed documentary filmmakers and Morgan Freeman and many of the NASA astronauts featured in One Strange Rock." People's reaction? "The neatest thing for me to see, for us all to see, was how much more interested the audience was in meeting the astronauts than they were in any of the Hollywood stars, and in fact all of the Hollywood stars couldn't get enough of meeting the astronauts. I thought that was a great National Geographic moment that restored my faith in humanity," she said.

Discussing the early success of the company's scripted originals, Monroe said the response to the shows have shown that "there is an appetite of scripted from us." She highlighted that the network has seen a broader, more upscale and more female audience. But, the exec acknowledged, "we have also swung and missed. Not everything has worked."

Monroe emphasized, though, that the National Geographic Society and Fox told her when she started on the path of more originals that "it’s about playing the long game."

One thing the scripted content push will not bring to Nat Geo is mythical creatures as its programming will remain fact-based or -inspired, Monroe maintained: "You will not see dragons, as much as I love Game of Thrones, on National Geographic. They don't exist in real life."   

Asked about Nat Geo's success on social media, the exec said it is the top non-celebrity brand "on Instagram and in social." She added: "The rankings are the Kardashians, Selena Gomez and National Geographic. If I do nothing else right, I am determined to unseat Selena — much to my daughter's chagrin, she is a big Selena Gomez fan."