Programming Strategy – National Geographic rolls out

With its September 1 launch in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Australia, The National Geographic Channel (ngc) makes its mark on the international tv map prior to a domestic U.S. roll out....
September 1, 1997

With its September 1 launch in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Australia, The National Geographic Channel (ngc) makes its mark on the international tv map prior to a domestic U.S. roll out.

Rather than spinning its wheels trying to get carriage in the tight U.S. cable spectrum, NGC launched internationally where it makes more economic sense; Sandy McGovern, ngc president, projects a late 1998 or 1999 launch in the U.S.

A joint venture of National Geographic Television (ngt) and nbc, the Washington, D.C.-based service is carried by News Corp’s BSkyB. At launch, the channels carry six hours of primetime programming, to be expanded to 12 by the end of 1997 with BSkyB’s digital roll out.

NGC viewers will see a mix of programming that includes natural history, scientific breakthroughs, geographic exploration and fact-based dramas.

To supply the latter genre, NGT and Hallmark Entertainment, New York, are partnering to produce Odyssey: National Geographic Night at the Movies, that will dramatize true-life adventure stories shot from exotic locales. Projects under consideration include Inca Gold: The Lords of Spain, The Last Step: The First American Ascent of K2 and Lovers of the Nile.

While the channel is representative of the tradition of National Geographic, it is trying to reach a broader audience, including a younger demographic, with a programming slant toward adventure and action.

‘We think our programming will be a fairly significant departure from what some of the other non-fiction services have,’ says McGovern.

Of NGC’s programming, 40% comes from NGT’s libraries. The rest is internationally acquired product. Rather than purchasing libraries that would give it surplus inventory, NGC has cherry-picked product. ‘We’ve taken a much more selective strategy, and are paying a little higher price for better quality product, as opposed to buying bulk,’ she says.

International programs slated to air include: Great Adventures of the 20th Century, from Toronto, Canada-based CineNova Productions and Canal+; Joaquim Goes to America, produced by Frederic Labourasse and distributed by Amaya, Paris, France; The Human Race, from Electric Pictures; Fatal Game, produced by Australia’s Orana Films; and ZDF’s Natur Zeit Series.

NGT product includes: Volcano; Beauty and the Beasts; Borneo: Beyond the Grave; and Great Indian Railway. As to the budget range, these are ‘big hours,’ which can cost in excess of $1 million; especially the natural history programs.

NGC’s plans call for original productions in two to three years, and McGovern believes that NGC has an advantage in being able to draw on many little-known expeditions that the National Geographic Society has carried out over the past century.

‘Within the archives of National Geographic there is so much material that we can utilize to produce new product that no one else can create,’ she says.

At launch ngc will reach BSkyB’s 3.5 million subscribers in the U.K., 500,000 in Scandinavia and 250,000 subs in Australia. NGC will come as part of the basic BSkyB package with no additional charge to subscribers. By the end of ’97, the total ngc sub base is expected to reach seven million.

The initial launch is the first of many that the network plans to make around the globe. Latin America, the Middle East, India, Canada, Spain and Germany are territories in which NGC has had discussions to launch channels within the next year. By the year 2000, it plans to be a 24-hour service in at least 30 countries.

Although there is a fear of potential saturation of non-fiction programming services some day, McGovern believes that those with strong brand equity like National Geographic, or sister services of existing brands like Discovery and A&E, will survive.

In efforts to encourage international success, NGC makes agreements to turn its distribution partners into joint venture partners with a 50% stake in the channel. ‘We’re literally getting married to our distribution partners in these regions so that they will be as eager for the success of our channels as we are.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.