Buyer Profiles – National Geographic Australia: First forays into commissioning

As established natural history broadcasters spread their word around the globe, and companies outside the traditional pack jump on the wild world bandwagon, RealScreen canvasses four decision-makers on what they want, what they need, and what they avoid......
August 1, 1998

As established natural history broadcasters spread their word around the globe, and companies outside the traditional pack jump on the wild world bandwagon, RealScreen canvasses four decision-makers on what they want, what they need, and what they avoid…

‘The Australian audience hasn’t been served well in terms of docs,’ says Bryan Smith, general manager of National Geographic Channel Australia. ‘In the last figures I saw, ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] aired about 6% docs, and they were the major doc player.’

If he’s right in thinking the Aussie audience has had a hankering for more reality on their sets, it might explain some of NGC Australia’s domestic success since its launch to an initial 200,000 subscribers on Foxtel’s basic cable package. Launched last fall alongside NGC services in the U.K., Ireland and Scandinavia, NGC Australia was joined in its buying power this July by services throughout Europe and Asia via NBC International.

Similar to the arrangement off-shore Discovery Channel services have with their mothership in Bethesda, the lion’s share of NGC programming is initiated via HQ in Washington, and Smith is quick to point it out: ‘The truth is, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is, most buying and commissioning is done centrally.’

That being said, a fair portion of the schedule Smith pulls together for NGC Australia, up to 40% at times, is culled from Australia or New Zealand, by necessity. ‘Australian audiences really demand a reflection of their own region. They’ll have a certain amount of interest in, say, the elk of Europe, but they want a reflection of the South Pacific as well.’

Smith also says there are marked differences in viewing sensibilities in Australia which must be addressed, chief among them the fact that his viewers have not been exposed to a long legacy of docs in all their incarnations, as U.K. viewers have.

There’s also a difference, he says, in terms of tolerance towards violence. He cites as an example Kumari: The Strange Secret of the Kingdom of Nepal, a popular film on the channels, distributed by Explore International. The film follows a particularly bloody ritual in which eight year-old girls are led down an alleyway strewn with recently-slaughtered animals. The girl who does not cry, legend has it, will become the next goddess. ‘In America it would have had to have been cut for sure. In our version we cut only the most extreme violence. I didn’t want to sanitize it. We have different broadcast controls, we can put strong warnings at the top and warn people what to expect.’

According to Smith – originally a veterinary surgeon, and who is well-known to viewers down under and around the world as the presenter/producer of Beyond 2000 – he, like the manager of each NGC service, has a specific (yet undisclosed) ‘bag of money’ with which to work. ‘However, I can lobby the bags of money from other areas if I see fit. That’s one way it goes.’

Up until now his own cash has been primarily spent acquiring local completed product or chipping in on coproductions with other NGC services, but Smith has recently commissioned his first series – a five-minute per week project called Video Postcards: Africa which will also be shown monthly in a half-hour compilation. He admits the idea – an Australian-born zookeeper follows his dream to live in Africa and sends back weekly video diaries – may be too parochial for the rest of his Nat Geo colleagues to come in on, but its size made it manageable for him to finance anyway.

Having developed a taste for docmaking during a tenure at ABC’s documentary unit as a senior reporter for A Big Country, Smith likes to work with producers as early as possible so as to afford himself the ‘good fun’ of heading into an edit suite.

If in his travels (Smith attended the first MIPDOC earlier this year on his channel’s behalf) he finds projects he’s particularly interested in, either for his own service or for any or all of the services, he has the ability to ‘champion’ the producer through the system. ‘My job, essentially, is having a finger on the pulse of the local production community in my region, as well as programming the service.’

See also:

Buyer profiles -

Odyssée (pg. 32)

Disney (pg. 34)

Animal Planet Europe (pg. 41)

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.