As long-running travel series Globe Trekker hits a major milestone, realscreen looks at the history of the show and why it continues to excite and innovate 20 years on.
Charting the history of Globe Trekker is like tracking the timeline of the technological revolution.
From its beginnings as the Lonely Planet pilot shot in 1992, the series has weathered a number of industry-related, technological and global changes in its 20 years of production.
Ian Cross, managing director of Pilot Productions and creator of the long-running travel program, says comparing the early days of what began as Lonely Planet to the current production of Globe Trekker is like comparing the days of the horse and carriage to the advent of the motor vehicle.
“When we started there was no mobile phone, no Internet, no HD, no DVD, no widescreen,” lists Cross. Over the years the series and its producers have had to evolve to keep up with these changes, creating a website for the series during the dawn of the Internet, getting into the DVD business to distribute the more than 200 episodes of the show directly to fans, and starting a YouTube pay-per-view channel.
Cross’ background made him a natural for travel TV. A well-traveled journalist, he grew up in Canberra, Australia and held various posts in the United States and the UK as a reporter for television, radio and newspapers. In 1991 he founded Pilot Productions in London.
A self-described “young hippie” in the 1970s, Cross did a lot of traveling and was inspired by seeing parts of the world that were off the beaten path. One of his favorite memories is crossing the Asia overland trail, which came to be known as the “hippie trail,” in the mid-’70s. Creating a series such as Globe Trekker would be a way to share the inspiration travel gave him with television viewers.
In 1990, Cross and his team licensed the name Lonely Planet from the travel book company and in October 1992, traveled to Indonesia to shoot the pilot. Starting in Bali, the team spent a month traveling across the country to Timor, meeting people and documenting the realities of the voyage.
“It was a pilot so we were making it up as we went along,” remembers Cross.
ESTABLISHING A STRONG FORMAT
Despite winging it, the Indonesian trip and subsequent pilot established the format that would carry Lonely Planet through to Globe Trekker and keep it on channels around the world some 20 years later.
Christmas 1992 brought Cross to Sydney, Australia to edit the footage. He and then business partner Simon Nasht (who Cross bought out of Pilot Productions in 1997) spent 1993 shopping the program to channels around the world. In 1994, they produced the first 12 episodes for Channel 4 in the UK and TLC in America.
Other channels that came on board shortly thereafter included YLE in Finland, France 5 and Discovery Asia, all three of which are still carrying the program today.
When asked about the key to the program’s longevity, partners point to the series’ format. “The format hasn’t changed, which is unusual for any TV show,” says Steve Fright, director of broadcasting for Travel Channel International, which has carried and coproduced the show in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa since 2000.
“Wherever they go they seem to have presenters who are very open to experiences and have this amazing ability to connect with the people.”
The format is deceptively simple: presenters visit various locales and immerse themselves in the culture by living as the locals do. The narrative style of the program, which takes the viewer through a story from start to finish, keeps the series agile, and allows the producers to go wherever the shoot takes them.
“There are many shows on television that have a strong pace or feature eye-candy but have ‘empty calories’ in take-away for the viewer,” says American Public Television president Cynthia Fenneman. “Globe Trekker‘s producers have the rare talent of understanding how to marry stunning videography, memorable talent-driven moments and entertaining information with rhythmic, indigenous music.”
CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
Creating a format that works is one thing, but creating one that can survive 20 years is a rarity. One of the biggest challenges facing Pilot is keeping Globe Trekker relevant to viewers with each passing decade. While the program’s structure and style haven’t changed much over the years, the world around it and the international television industry have. One abrupt, tragic change that affected the series was September 11, 2001.
After planes hit the World Trade Center in New York, people were afraid to fl y, and the resulting conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that many of the “out there” spaces that Globe Trekker specialized in were suddenly off limits. Declining interest in travel and difficulty getting the crew to destinations were not the only resulting problems for Globe Trekker, as the in-flight market, which was a large source of income for the show, took a plunge when some airlines went out of business.
Prior to that event, the biggest challenge facing the series was in its branding. In 2000 the license deal that Pilot Productions had with Lonely Planet came to an end and the two companies went their separate ways.
This led to a rebranding for the series, which changed its title briefly to Pilot Guides before settling on Globe Trekker. While the title change may not have negatively impacted the series to any great degree, perhaps one of the biggest changes for the program came later when it lost its key presenters.
Ian Wright joined Lonely Planet when the series first went into production in 1993 after answering an ad Channel 4 put in The Guardian. Pilot received thousands of replies and combed through mailbags full of audition tapes stored in the bathtub in Cross’s wife’s apartment.
Though Wright had never worked in television, the comedy and personality in Wright’s show reel – which featured the London native navigating currency exchange, language barriers, digestive problems and jail – stood out above the rest.
Other hosts that have resonated with Globe Trekker audiences include South African-American actor Justine Shapiro, who was referred to Pilot by a fellow producer; and American Megan McCormack, who answered a casting call in New York.
Kevin Dickie, senior VP of content at Discovery Asia, pinpoints the episode in which Wright went to Mauritius and was the best man at an underwater wedding as one of his favorites. Discovery Asia has carried the series since 1995, and Dickie says that the strength of the presenters has been the glue that holds the series together through so many seasons.
All three hosts left the program over the course of the last five years, and while Fright feels that Pilot has yet to find strong replacements for them, he says the change may give the program a chance to inject some new talent who can use their local knowledge to take the audience on a tour of their home countries. He points to Hawaiian host Zay Harding as a successful new face for the program.
Though there are a number of committed broadcasters who have stayed with the show for decades, and all of the channels that were with Lonely Planet stuck with the show during the rebrand, the series has moved homes multiple times over the years.
“In some territories we’re on our third or fourth broadcaster,” says Cross. For instance, the program lost its place on Channel 4 in 1999 and took up a UK home on Travel Channel in 2000.
In the U.S., it has moved from TLC to Travel to PBS. Its ability to move to new networks is a reflection of the series’ appeal. According to Cross, the only European territories the show hasn’t aired in via terrestrial television are Serbia, Belgium and Portugal.
Currently, the series does its best numbers in the United States where it airs on 123 of U.S. public TV stations’ primary channels and reaches 98% of U.S. television households, according to APT’s Fenneman.
Finland’s public service broadcaster YLE has been the most faithful to the series, bringing it back every season since it picked up season one in 1994. Though YLE bought the series under its three different names – Lonely Planet, Pilot Guides and Globe Trekker – the Finnish slot name has remained Matkapassi (Travel Passport).
YLE acquisition executive Katja Solla, who was responsible for buying Globe Trekker for the network until 2011, says the program’s longevity is down to “good research, great hosts [and] a balanced mix of factual and entertainment.” As recently as 2008, in an interview for realscreen about the direction for factual at her channel, Solla said that Globe Trekker was one of her favorite recent acquisitions.
Still, the series hasn’t been immune to economic conditions. License fees have been frozen, in some cases, for nearly 15 years, so shoots that would last for a month have been shortened to less than three weeks. The program must meet ever-changing technological needs while dealing with unchanging budgets.
“We’ve always had multiple funders, but previously where you needed 20 funders now you need 30 or 40 because the market is splintered,” says Cross.
To coincide with the program’s 20th anniversary, Pilot is relaunching its website. Currently the site boasts hours of content, and each month Pilot posts a new short-form video that corresponds with a current event. For example, August featured UK-related content for the Olympics, while
September featured content on Nevada to coincide with the Burning Man Festival.
Travel Channel International is celebrating Globe Trekker‘s anniversary with “Globe Trekker month,” which will see a selection of programs from over the years accompanying the brand new 16th season across its European channels.
The upcoming season will feature Buenos Aires and Moscow city guides; visits to countries such as Croatia, Algeria and Burma; compilation shows on great Australian hikes and Colonial Australia; and a special on art trails along the Riviera.
For Fright, the most exciting aspect of the new programs in production are the six “Ultimate ‘Round the World Trip” specials which will see Wright, Shapiro and McCormack return to the program.
The specials have the three popular hosts circumnavigating the globe via a road trip along Route 66; a journey following the Silk Road from Xian to Istanbul; and a Pan American voyage to discover the Conquistadors, Incas and Aztecs. The specials made their debut during MIPCOM in Cannes last month.
Cross admits there are a few places – such as Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen – that he has wanted to take the series, but hasn’t been able to because of travel restrictions and safety concerns. “If you watch the news you’d probably never travel anywhere,” says Fright. But it’s the series’ positive outlook on the world and the people in it that keeps it appealing to audiences, he adds.
“We’ve managed to stay on air because we’re a global show, [and] we’ve got audiences all over the world,” says Cross. “We’ve never been dependant on any one broadcaster. Which means if we get axed – which we inevitably do – we can survive the axing.”