Nat Geo Readies New Era With 'Mars' Launch, Greenlights More Scripted (Exclusive)

MARS  Nat Geo Still H 2016
National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

The cable channel, set to debut an aggressive slate of new originals come fall, orders eight hours of its gestating adaptation of Martha Raddatz's 'The Long Road Home.'

National Geographic Channel has been pushing for a programming course correct during the two years since its regime change — a planned shift from typical cable reality fare to projects better aligned with the prestige associated with its society and magazine namesake. Those changes will soon be evident on air.   

Ahead of the channel's Saturday presentation at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with network brass to talk about fall's ambitious rollout, plans to communicate their new identity to viewers on a competitive landscape and the very specific kind of scripted projects they see working at the network.

"This fall really marks the beginning of the rollout of the new vision," says Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks. "We've launched a couple things here and there, The Story of God being the most encouraging example, but this new strategy represents a seismic shift. In the fall, there will be two series [Wicked Tuna and Life Below Zero] that have been on before. Everything else is new." 

The coming two months bring new episodes of Neil deGrasse Tyson's talker and doc series Years of Living Dangerously, but Nat Geo's new era really kicks off in November with the launch of Mars. The six-part Ron Howard production is a unique addition to the network, blending a scripted narrative about future colonization of the titular planet and interviews with scientists paving the way in space-travel technology — including intimate access to Elon Musk's SpaceX

Original programming and production president Tim Pastore acknowledges that the blending of scripted material with documentary will be a new experience for some viewers, "We're supporting the narrative with the pivotal turning points that are happening today with people like Elon Musk and NASA," he says. "It's about amplifying storytelling capabilities." 

The plan is for amplification to extend to promotion as well. Mars is getting a global launch — Nat Geo reaches 440 million households in 171 countries and 45 languages — and the network's biggest marketing push to date. It also will rely on the complete Nat Geo brand, something the channel is better equipped to do since the print brand fully merged with the TV arm under 21st Century Fox in 2015. The Mars launch includes two books from the National Geographic Society and a tie-in cover story for the popular magazine. (Its 56.4 million Instagram followers won't hurt, either.)

"Seven months ago, the joint venture expanded and now we have all of the media assets of National Geographic all in one company," adds Monroe. "Because we were already part of the Fox family, [Fox Networks chairman/CEO] Peter [Rice] in particular has been so supportive and so engaged in the strategy. It's really helped open so many doors in the creative community. Now that we have a programming strategy that is more aligned with the National Geographic brand, it's easy for the other properties, like the magazine, to galvanize around our storytelling. It's attractive to the creative community. That and the fact that our pockets are deeper than they've ever been."

On top of Howard, who also worked on doc series Breakthrough and will make his scripted TV directorial debut with 2017 effort Genius, National Geographic is partnering with such names as Brian Grazer, Darren Aronofsky, Alex Gibney, Scott Rudin and Sebastian Junger on other projects. 

Plans also include more scripted efforts. In fact, Nat Geo has ordered an event series based on Martha Raddatz's best-seller The Long Road Home. The project, which the network has been developing since 2015, will run eight hours. The 33 screenwriter Mikko Alanne is penning the script about the 2004 ambush of Fort Hood's First Cavalry Division in Baghdad during the Iraq War. (Production will begin in 2017, with a global launch being eyed for later in the year.) 

"I think that's our big advantage," says exec vp and global head of scripted Carolyn Bernstein of the network's global reach. "We're doing something really entrepreneurial. We're telling people that we have the resources, the time slots and huge creative ambitions. Come and work with us, and bring us your projects you're passionate about that really fit in with this specific brand. It's premium ambitions, but we're not a general entertainment channel. If you're taking out a project to a dozen different channels, it probably doesn't make sense for us." 

Mars will be followed by a greater doc push, including Continent 7: Antarctica and a revival of Explorer. But, in the meantime, another scripted project may give the network a more organic publicity boost, as Oct. 16 will bring the latest adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's popular historical tomes with Killing Reagan.

"It's perfectly timed," Monroe says, referring to the week's news that Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr. will soon be released after 35 years in a government psychiatric hospital. "With the election and now Hinkley, we think it will get a lot of attention."