Its cameras have scaled the summit of K2, plunged to the depths of the Atlantic to capture the discovery of the sunken Titanic, and traversed 1,200 miles through the jungles in Congo to help save one of the last wild places on Earth. It has over 400 awards to its credit, including 13 CableACE awards, two Academy Award nominations and 54 Emmy Awards, including two this month for Wolf Pack and Killer Cats of the Kalahari - more Emmys than any other news or documentary program. Looking back over its track record, one could say that National Geographic’s Explorer series is a bit of an over-achiever.
Next year, Explorer will accomplish yet another remarkable feat as it celebrates 20 years on TV. The show is also moving to the three-and-a-half year old National Geographic Channel. RealScreen catches up with some of the creative minds behind the show as they reflect on the changes, challenges and future of the longest running documentary series on cable.
Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television and Film (NGTF), recalls proposing Nat Geo launch its own channel in the early ’80s, but it was a risky proposition. There needed to be more film in the vault. ‘Geographic was only doing four TV specials at the time for PBS,’ he recalls. ‘There was so much going on [here] and I felt we had a lot more to say on a regular basis… So, [instead] I proposed the series and got management support. I then had to go out and get some advertising. IBM was our first big advertiser.’
Launched April 7, 1985 on the cable channel Nickelodeon, Explorer initially occupied a lengthy, three-hour slot. Five different docs were presented, covering topics as wide-ranging as human-powered vehicles, diving with underwater photographer David Doubilet, and an expedition to cross Iceland by river.
Says Michael Rosenfeld, former Explorer executive producer and now NGTF senior EP, specials and events, ‘The show was almost experimental.’ He adds, ‘It was a lot of fun in those days to work on the show, because you never knew what was going to come next.’
One year after it launched on Nick, Explorer moved to TBS where it morphed into a two-hour slot on Sunday nights. It remained there for 13 years. During this time, the show really came into its own. ‘TBS was a great home for us because Ted Turner was a huge fan of National Geographic and Explorer,’ says Rosenfeld. ‘They treated us with a lot of respect and they gave us a lot of freedom.’
In the early years, the show went through numerous hosts, including folk singer Tom Chapin and actor Robert Urich. The hosts were bound to the studio, where they simply introduced the films. But when Rosenfeld came on as EP in 1993, he helped transform the role of the host and lead the show to higher ratings. ‘When I took over [as EP], Robert Urich was the host. We changed to Boyd Matson, abandoned the studio, and took the host out in the field every week.’
Matson, an experienced tv journalist who had worked as a field reporter for The Today Show, was an inspired choice. ‘We held auditions and asked people to write their own material,’ says Rosenfeld. ‘Until then we always had writers who wrote for the talent, and the talent would show up and read it. It felt kind of formal and we wanted to be more spontaneous. Boyd came in wearing his cowboy boots and he had written this marvelous piece on rattlesnakes. He was great.’ Matson remained host of Explorer for nine years.
After its successful run on TBS, the show moved to CNBC in 1999 and then to MSNBC in 2001. The move to NBC-owned channels was originally part of a plan that was to include the launch of a National Geographic Channel by Nat Geo Ventures and NBC, with the show eventually moving to the Channel once it was established. In the end, NBC only participated in the Channel internationally. The domestic channel ended up being partnered with Fox Cable Networks Group.
The move to MSNBC brought significant changes to the show. ‘It was a news channel,’ explains Kelly. ‘When 9/11 happened, we covered terrorism and international subjects for months at a time, because that was what msnbc wanted on their air.’
Recalls Explorer EP David Royle, who has helmed the show since 1999, ‘When we left TBS… we went to a broadcaster that wanted more topical programming. And in many ways that was an opportunity for us. We live in an age and time when so many of the news programs in America are ignoring international affairs. At National Geographic, we have extensive international experience as well as access, so we could get ahead of stories.
‘For instance, while we were at CNBC we sent a team into Afghanistan about nine months before 9/11 to meet with the last of the Afghan leaders that were fighting the Taliban… 9/11 happened the week we were due to move to MSNBC. We put all of our programming on the back burner and were positioned to do a major behind-the-scenes report on what had been going on in Afghanistan. That created a great stir at the time and got record ratings for msnbc when we launched.’
The biggest change for Explorer came in 2003, when the show was relaunched as the one-hour Ultimate Explorer on MSNBC. The show featured a new look, a new format and an intrepid new host, Lisa Ling, formerly of womens’ daytime talk show The View. It also featured a group of correspondents who would contribute reports from the field. In this incarnation, the show had its ‘newsiest’ feel. It would also prove to be short lived. Now that Ultimate Explorer is moving to the National Geographic Channel (NGC), the show will drop the ‘Ultimate’ moniker and evolve once again.
A natural fit
‘The overall theme of the Channel is ‘Dare to Explore,” says John Ford, NGC’s exec VP of programming. ‘What a great home for a series called Explorer, when the tag line for the channel is ‘Dare to Explore?” The partnership between Explorer and NGC includes an exclusive three-year deal between NGC and Explorer‘s producer, NGFT. The Channel will commission 22 hours of Explorer annually and it will air on Sundays at 8 p.m. and repeat the following Saturday at 7 p.m. It premieres Sunday, January 9, 2005.
‘We will still have reports and correspondents, but it’s going to be less correspondent-driven,’ explains Royle. ‘And Lisa Ling will still be hosting the show.’ The new Explorer will also feature a new look – both musically and graphically.
Royle sees these changes not as a return to the past, but as a continuing evolution. ‘We will be taking the very best of our past, plus what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, and molding it to fit with the Channel and the direction it’s going in.’ Upcoming shows will tackle such diverse subjects as women suicide bombers and locust plagues. One called Deadly Love looks at the unusual mating habits of spiders.
Despite so many major changes, Royle contends that what remains constant is his team’s ability and commitment to bring compelling stories to the screen. ‘Explorer has been blessed over the years with the most extraordinary group of producers,’ he says. ‘I like to think we have one of the very best teams we’ve ever had right now. Most of them have experience from other places before they came to us, but I think they’re given more creative latitude and more ability to spread their wings at Explorer than almost anywhere else in broadcasting.’
Did You Know?
* Over 38,000 story ideas have been submitted for consideration by Explorer since it debuted in 1985.
* National Geographic Television, along with marine biologist Greg Marshall, developed the ‘Crittercam.’ The first images ‘from the critter’s point of view’ were broadcast on Explorer in 1993.
* Explorer broadcast the very first images of the Titanic since the ship sank in 1912. The wreck was discovered in 1985 by National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Robert Ballard.
A few words with Explorer exec David Royle
On average, how much time does it take to produce an episode of Explorer?
It depends on the circumstance. We have stories where an idea comes in one day and a team will be out within a week. We did a story last year about a scientist who had put a probe into the heart of a tornado. He’d been trying to do this [for years, and] he finally had. The second he did, we were turning around a film that went out a week later.
Other times, we’ll take longer. If we’re making a film about a hippopotamus, for instance, that might be done over a period of a year, because you want to see its complete life cycle.
How many projects do you currently have in development?
We always have a slate of ideas. Right now I’d say we probably have a list of 20 or 30 ideas we’re looking at… At any stage we have five or six in production.
What happens if a story doesn’t pan out. Do you scrap the idea?
No, we seldom scrap anything. Of course, a story is more compelling if you reach the summit of Everest, rather than if you’re stuck at base camp. But, good filmmakers are good at crafting stories. It’s not that you can’t make a story if you don’t succeed in your final goal.
We did a film, produced by Laurie Butterfield, about the last in a series of attempts to fly around the world in a hot air balloon – and we bet on the wrong balloon. I think it got the second furthest of any balloon, but it crashed. Literally at the same time, the Swiss/British team went sailing past and won the prize for being the first around the world. But we won an Emmy for our balloon that crashed in the Sea of Japan. Even if the story goes down, it doesn’t mean that your storytelling has to go down with it.