Keeping nimble

The iconic National Geographic brand is woven throughout the fabric of modern culture. The world's most identifiable magazine first hit tv screens in 1965 in a series of National Geographic Specials. But it wasn't until 1997 that the brand would occupy dedicated space on international airwaves, through the launch of National Geographic Channels International (ngci).
October 1, 2007

The iconic National Geographic brand is woven throughout the fabric of modern culture. The world’s most identifiable magazine first hit TV screens in 1965 in a series of National Geographic Specials. But it wasn’t until 1997 that the brand would occupy dedicated space on international airwaves, through the launch of National Geographic Channels International (NGCI).

The 10-year-old network (which, incidentally, shares its anniversary year with realscreen) made its mark on the international tv map on September 1, 1997, launching in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Australia. Though the us appeared conspicuously absent from the launch roster, NGCI execs felt it made more economic sense to debut internationally rather than try to garner carriage in the tight us cable market.

At launch, the channels carried six hours of primetime programming – a mix of natural history, scientific breakthroughs, geographic exploration and fact-based drama – with 40% culled from the National Geographic Television vault and 60% from international acquisitions.

Staying true to the essence of the Nat Geo brand, NGCI cherry-picked product rather than purchasing large libraries. ‘We’ve taken a much more selective strategy and are paying a little higher price for better-quality product as opposed to buying bulk,’ then-president Sandy McGovern told realscreen in fall 1997.

That’s a strategy that’s carried NGCI through the past decade, leading to growth, channel expansion and international acclaim. ‘Our strategy has always been global. Our early goals were to get distribution in every major market as quickly as possible and, on the content side, to build enduring connections with our viewers,’ says David Haslingden, CEO of National Geographic Channels US and International, who joined the network in 1999. ‘The industry has certainly evolved and the broadcast climate has changed, but the strategy hasn’t.’

While NGCI acknowledges the challenges that specialty broadcasters have faced in the last 10 years, Haslingden and his team prefer to view them as opportunities. Audience fragmentation? An opportunity to create niche programming and product. The evolution of the multi-platform universe? An opportunity to create tools and touch points carried over new delivery systems to build on the brand’s viewer connection.

But how does the network create that connection? What is the secret formula? According to Haslingden, NGCI’s true market differentiator and a key contributor to its continued success is its executive team. ‘I don’t think there is any other global TV company that has the depth and talent of executives that we do. We’re constantly calibrating the balance between local and international content, and we’re able to do that by tapping into people in our 31 offices who have a good sense of the manner and potency with which the channel is resonating with audiences,’ says Haslingden.

This ‘one brand, one network’ approach – and the fact that all NGCI execs buy into it – ensures that NGCI remains nimble and responsive, something one might not expect from a company owned by behemoths like NGT and Fox Entertainment Group. ‘We can move really quickly to recalibrate,’ says Haslingden. ‘For example, sometimes a market is not doing well and it is time to slide efforts. Three years ago, our UK channel had issues, so it was time to shift resources and focus on that.’

Haslingden expects this unique brand of corporate agility to carry NGCI forward in the new multi-platform universe. ‘All of the other screens give us an almost limitless potential to reach people in engaging ways.

‘But the risk is that you don’t move fast enough,’ he says. ‘This is where being quick and nimble really allows us to stretch the lead. Companies shackled with slower-moving operating systems or cultures will find it much tougher.’

True to the multi-tentacled approach of parent company Fox, ngci plans to aggressively expand the brand on every available screen – linear TV, VOD, HD, IPTV, mobile and online. According to Sydney Suissa, NGCI’s EVP of content, new and emerging delivery systems represent an opportunity to broaden the Nat Geo brand and make it available to different age groups. ‘We can take the key dna strands of the brand and make content or channels specific to them, opening the brand to younger viewerships with adventure, for example, or go even younger with our junior blocks. That’s an opportunity we didn’t have 10 years ago.’

Asked what’s next to come down the expansion pipeline, both Haslingden and Suissa point to the October 15 launch of Nat Geo Music, a 24-hour music channel set to debut on Italy’s Sky Platform to 4.2 million subscribers. ‘Nat Geo Music is ideally suited to our brand,’ says Suissa. ‘It’s all about exploring the world through the music of the people – by listening instead of a static look at it.’ In partnership with major labels including EMI Arabia, Warner Music Latin America, Sony/BMG Asia and Universal Italy, the channel will feature top international and local artists, broadcasting music videos, concerts, interviews and documentaries.

‘We won’t launch anything unless there is an appetite for it and it has revenue potential,’ says Haslingden, coyly evading questions on longer-term plans. He does, however, have a clear vision for the next 10 years: he wants NGCI to be regarded as the leading global factual entertainment brand, attracting the best and brightest in the industry. ‘While that may sound vague, it’s actually on point,’ he says. ‘There is going to be enormous change over the next 10 years and our only insurance is our people and our brand. If you have those, then no matter how the market evolves, you have a good chance of prospering.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.