David Lyle lifts off

In his first major interview as CEO of National Geographic Channels U.S., David Lyle talks exclusively to realscreen about his plans for the network, calling out to new producers and outlining his plans for Nat Geo's international pipeline.
September 27, 2011

This August 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. (NGC U.S.) to CEO of the company, with responsibility for its global programming.

The meteoric promotion caps a remarkable turnaround for the Australian exec, who joined NGC U.S. following the closure of the Fox Look formats distribution division in March. Lyle, who had previously run the Fox Reality Channel until its relaunch as National Geographic Channel sister network Nat Geo Wild in 2009, was left in limbo following the second closure of a Fox outpost in as many years. Still, 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.

The new CEO is now keen to make his mark on NGC U.S., with his first order of business being a call out to indies that the company 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,” Lyle tells realscreen.

“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 promotion comes in the context of a broader restructure taking place, with a shift in the way NGC U.S. handles its development.

“There are going to be four teams, one of which is going to be devoted to Nat Geo Wild,” explains Lyle. “The other three – call them A, B and C – for NGC will not be specialized by sub-genre or that sort of thing. It will just be spread equally around so that the different teams all do different sorts of shows.”

These four teams will report to senior VP of content Michael Cascio, who will work closely with senior VP of global development and production Bridget Whalen Hunnicutt.

Each will be headed by a team leader, with VP of global development Charlie Parsons and VPs of development and production Kevin Mohs and Kim Woodard overseeing the three NGC teams; and senior VP Geoff Daniels and senior VP of development Janet Han Vissering overseeing Nat Geo Wild.

“What we want to do is marry development to production,” Lyle adds. “We want the team as a group to see this thing through all the way – right up to delivering on air. I want one holistic approach; no cracks in which things fall through.”

With Lyle’s promotion, an obvious question remains over who will now handle West Coast development for the network. While some speculation had emerged that Hunnicutt would move to head this, Lyle says nothing has been decided yet. What he is sure about, however, is that NGC “certainly needs, at a minimum, at least one development person” on the West Coast.

Beyond the U.S., Lyle’s new role also sees him thinking about the roll-out of Nat Geo’s American-made programming on the network’s international channels. “About three quarters of the programming, or sometimes even more, that is commissioned or greenlit in the United States flows through to the rest of the world,” he says.

“So by being hands-on involved here, I am effectively hands-on involved in the program content as it goes through to the rest of the world. On top of that though, I want to really make sure – the same way that we want these development teams to have a holistic approach – that as this material passes to the rest of the world, it is what the rest of the world can use.

“I want to make our flow of material to the international National Geographics smoother, and then I want to get feedback from them about what they’re looking for as well.”

Unlike previous channel toppers, Lyle’s past 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.”

He adds, however, that what definitely won’t be coming to the network 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.’

“In many cases I divorce the storytelling or filmmaking techniques that various reality shows use from the subject matter,” he continues. “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.”

Ultimately, Lyle urges producers to “come in and surprise us,” as NGC U.S. looks to do bigger and different sorts of projects. “My invitation is out there,” he says, “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.”

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

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.