In National Geographic Channel U.S.’s Crittercam, a lioness methodically plods towards her prey in the dead of the African night. For the first time, the innovative camera has been attached to a land animal – a lion no less – and the viewer is jettisoned into a firsthand view of its dinner. This isn’t the crittercam of old, but a fast-paced half-hour series, hosted by behavioral ecologist Dr. Mike Heithaus.
‘It’s a different approach to natural history,’ says John Ford, EVP of programming for National Geographic Channel U.S. ‘It looks at predator and prey relationships, and shows what’s going on where we can’t go. We have a very charismatic star [Heithaus] – an intrepid explorer whose passion is animal behavior. It’s really startling and fresh.’
Produced by National Geographic TV & Film (NGTF), Crittercam demonstrates a new direction for the channel, one that emphasizes excitement, adventure and intense storytelling. ‘Sexy’ and ‘National Geographic’ seemed like distant cousins even a few years ago, but with programs like National Geographic: When Animals Attract, sexy suddenly seems apt (originally slated for NGC U.S., the special aired on Fox in February).
Nat Geo Channel U.S., based in Washington, D.C., came on the scene in January 2001, reaching 10 million homes. A joint venture between NGTF and Fox Cable Networks, and part of National Geographic Channels International, NGC U.S. is set to hit 50 million homes by year end. Ford joined last summer after a four-year stint at Discovery.
A new on-air look debuted earlier this year – complete with a bolder, red and yellow logo – as part of an initiative to reposition NGC U.S. as a destination for viewers who ‘Dare to Explore.’ The campaign highlights Nat Geo’s more daring shows such as Crittercam, Worlds Apart (NGC’s first format, a sort of cultural exchange for families that debuted last fall), Taboo (which examines customs considered unacceptable in some societies) and Be the Creature (which transplants hosts Martin and Chris Kratt into animals’ habitats). Says Ford, ‘The programming is suspenseful, adventurous and reflects the spirit of viewers who yearn to connect to the world.’
Still more shows are in development that Ford says ‘break new ground.’ Airing later this year is Interpol, a thriller-style doc series that chronicles the exploits of the secretive international police organization. Produced by Virginia-based New Dominion Pictures, the one-hour program recreates high-stakes crime scenes to get an inside view of how the network tracks down and foils the world’s most cunning fugitives.
Meanwhile, Predators of War, produced by NGTF, wraps at the end of the year. Set around a waterhole in Africa, it features lions, cheetahs and wild dogs battling over turf. The two-hour program will be up-close and personal, yet militaristic in terms of language and approach – think Crittercam meets Tom Clancy.
Not all of NGC’s risks have paid off, however. Though daring, the female-skewing reality series Worlds Apart hasn’t met expectations, according to Ford. Despite doing well in local markets such as St. Louis – the home of a family transplanted to Mongolia for the series – overall, it has been ‘underperforming.’ Produced by New York-based True Entertainment, Worlds Apart was given a sked change mid-way through its run. And, while the net had been looking for a companion show during MIPCOM, Ford could not confirm at press time if the series would be renewed.
So, what can we expect from Ford and NGC in the coming year? ‘We’ve doubled our output of original production and there will be a lot more [content] that is story-driven, with high production values, strong computer graphics and great cinematography. We’re pushing the boundaries of the brand and approaching topics in a fresh way.’