David Lyle outlines Nat Geo vision (part one)

In his first major interview as CEO of National Geographic Channels U.S., David Lyle (pictured) talks exclusively to realscreen about his plans, calling out to new producers and assuring that despite his recent reality TV background, "we won't be going 'trashy.'" Part one of a two-part feature.
August 8, 2011

(Photo: David Lyle at the 2011 Realscreen Summit, by Rahoul Ghose)

In his first major interview as CEO of National Geographic Channels U.S., David Lyle (pictured) talks exclusively to realscreen about his plans for the network, calling out to new producers and assuring that despite his recent reality TV background, “we won’t be going trashy.” Part one of a two-part feature.


Last week saw a major shift in the factual landscape, with David Lyle catapulted from a temporary West Coast development role at National Geographic Channels U.S. to CEO of the network, with responsibility for the company’s global programming.

The meteoric promotion caps a remarkable turnaround for the Australian exec, who came on board at National Geographic Channels U.S. following the closure of the Fox Look formats distribution division five months ago.

Lyle, who had previously run the Fox Reality channel until its relaunch as Nat Geo Wild in 2009, was left in limbo following the second closure of a Fox outpost in as many years, yet the company was keen to retain the talented exec, who is respected throughout the industry for having a good eye for programming.

The promotion sees Lyle taking the reins from Fox Sports exec chairman David Hill, who had been overseeing the National Geographic/Fox Cable Networks joint venture in a hands-on capacity, while it reorganized. Hill will retain his seat on the Nat Geo board, which Lyle reports to.

“David Hill, who’s a friend, had asked me to help him in the West Coast office, and I’d known Steve [Burns] and the programming team there from when I was a sister network with Fox Reality, which ironically has now become Nat Geo Wild,” Lyle tells realscreen.

“So we all knew one another, which was great. David was spending hands-on time here in a bid to get me and some others involved again, and when I knew the search was on for a CEO, I decided it was something I passionately wanted to do – and I must say that I’m thrilled that I got the job.”

Lyle says he’s keen to make his mark on the network, with his first order of business being a call out for indies that the network has not worked with in the past.

“We want to make ourselves a really premiere place for good producers to come to, and that involves us reaching out to producers who haven’t worked with us before, whether they be in LA, New York or wherever,” says Lyle.

“I’d like to continue with a sense of enthusiasm towards multi-episode series – rather than the ones and twos – which have big characters and really hit the ball over the fence. We want to really think outside the box in that regard – it’s time for big projects that will grow the channel and the brand.”

Lyle’s appointment represents something of a sea change for NGC, and comes just a few months after Maryanne Culpepper was elevated from a development role to president of National Geographic Television, the network’s in-house production company.

Unlike previous channel toppers, Lyle’s experience gravitates more towards reality programming than the blue-chip natural history which NGC has been traditionally known for, yet he assures that the channel will remain true to its core values.

“Blue-chip will still be part of our core DNA, no doubt about it,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of variations of factual entertainment over 25 years in all parts of the world and sure, since 2005, the channel that I was running [Fox Reality] was in the reality end of the spectrum.

“But there are production techniques which some people call ‘reality’ in docusoaps like Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers, which I’d call ‘occu-soaps,’ focusing on occupations. So I’m open to modern, contemporary storytelling, some of which has been used in reality TV.

“But what really won’t be coming here are those huge competition shows with elimination elements and that sort of thing. And honestly, I’m someone who’s done some things at the tabloid end [of the spectrum], but we won’t be going ‘trashy.’”

Furthermore, he adds, “In many cases I divorce the storytelling or filmmaking techniques that various reality shows use from the subject matter. Our subject matter is going to be on-brand, true to the core. But we will have characters and storylines that involve emotional ups and downs – we’re unapologetic about that.

“It is about contemporary storytelling,” he continues. “Years ago we wouldn’t have done Border Wars – we wouldn’t have covered the material with the same visual terminology that we do now. Or take Indestructibles – it is just a perfect example of how to tell science and engineering [stories] in an arresting and captivating style.”

Ultimately, Lyle urges producers to “come in and surprise us,” as the channel looks to do bigger and different sorts of projects. “We still want the core material to be within the National Geographic channel brand, but we want to be excited and surprised,” he says.

“My invitation is out there, my door is always open, truly, and I want new people who haven’t thought of NGC as a home for their babies and their creative ideas to come and try us.”

To see part two of this interview, in which Lyle explains the new development structure at NGC, click here.

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.