NGC aims to spark conversation with “Brain Surgery Live”

National Geographic Channel's Tim Pastore and Leftfield Entertainment's David George tell realscreen about the eight-month process leading up to this Sunday's live special, Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss.
October 23, 2015

In recent years, National Geographic Channel has enjoyed astronomic success with such live specials as Live From Space and Space Dive. But for its next live event, the U.S. cable network has returned to Earth to focus on a surgical procedure touted as a potential treatment for a host of psychiatric ailments, including depression, OCD and anorexia.

The two-hour Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss, which airs on Sunday (October 25), will take viewers inside a neurosurgery operating room at University Hospitals (UH) Case Medical Center in Cleveland to witness deep brain stimulation, or DBS, a procedure during which patients remain awake in order to give surgeons feedback in real time.

“There are thousands of people on this planet that can be helped. Their quality of life can be increased by going under this elective surgery,” says Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production for National Geographic Channel. “The motivation is to get that message out there and to help create a conversation.”

The idea to air brain surgery live on TV grew out of the network’s desire to make a splash with something that aligned with a programming strategy targeted at celebrating the brain, while asserting the brand as a destination for high-end science programming.

“It’s a fairly safe procedure in a lot of ways and it’s a transformative procedure, meaning you see actual results in real time. That attracted us the most because when you’re doing a live show, you want a beginning, middle and end so you can see the results of what you just watched.”
-David George of Leftfield Entertainment

Execs approached the brand’s science magazine and blog to partner on content and then turned to production company Leftfield Pictures to brainstorm an out-of-the-box idea. Producers decided DBS would be suitable for television due to its interactive nature and the host of camera-mounted tools used during the procedure, including 3D visualization.

Why deep brain stimulation? 

“The most appealing thing to us with this was the success rate of the surgery, which is super high,” explains Leftfield Entertainment president David George, who is exec producing the special. “It’s a fairly safe procedure in a lot of ways and it’s a transformative procedure, meaning you see actual results in real time. That attracted us the most because when you’re doing a live show, you want a beginning, middle and end so you can see the results of what you just watched.”

Deep brain stimulation was approved by federal regulators in the 1990s as a treatment for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia, but it is back in the news thanks to experimental research into its possible use as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and a host of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anorexia, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourettes.

The procedure involves drilling a hole in the patient’s head and inserting electrodes in areas of the brain that control movement in order to disrupt the abnormal brain activity at the root of the patient’s health problems.

University Hospitals Case Medical Center

University Hospitals Case Medical Center

The chance to demystify viewers’ perceptions around elective brain surgery was partly what attracted doctors at Case Medical Center, which was the first in the U.S. to use DBS to treat Tourettes.

“There is a bit of a stigma,” says George. “When you hear ‘brain surgery’ you think, oh my goodness it’s this crazy over-the-top thing, but these people are so familiar with this process and understand what comes along with it. They really want to create that awareness.”

Production on Brain Surgery Live began eight months ago once Leftfield researched potential hospitals and put the word out. George says the response from the medical community was “overwhelming” but they pursued Case Medical Center due to its track record and cutting-edge facilities.

Casting (and filming) a brain surgery event

Casting a brain surgery special is not exactly like casting a reality series.

The patient who will appear in the special is Greg Grindley, a 49-year-old retired Navy chief petty officer from Northeastern Ohio who has lived with early onset Parkinson’s since 2004. Leftfield worked with the hospital on a list of patients who might be a good fit, and Grindley was chosen partly because of his story – he had been putting off the operation for years – which he hopes will draw attention to DBS.

The procedure will be conducted by Dr. Jonathan Miller, Dr. Jennifer Sweet and Dr. Benjamin Walter. It lasts six hours in total but National Geographic will focus on the key two-hour period when the neurosurgery team is implanting the electrodes and interacting with Grindley to gauge their progress.

Throughout the two hours, pre-taped segments about the past, present and future of brain surgery will air, as well as background on Grindley and the medical team.

Tim Pastore

Tim Pastore

To produce the show, Leftfield recruited a seasoned team of live-to-air producers and on-air talent from NBC morning show Today. Former Today showrunner Joe Michaels and news producer Robert Wheelock will lead the production, while former Today host Bryant Gumbel is to present the special, alongside neurosurgeon Dr. Rahul Janidal and podcaster Cara Santa Maria.

Production guidelines from the hospital include the sterilization of the camera crew and equipment that will be in the room during the operation. Producers will also cut to cameras mounted on seven medical instruments, such as X-rays and microscopes, as well as robotic cameras placed in the surgical theater.

“The process was mainly about Case guiding us and respecting their procedure and their room to make sure we’re not intrusive to the point where we’re impacting their jobs,” says George. “Ultimately, their jobs are the most important of the evening.”

Meanwhile, National Geographic Channel will broadcast the show live on its main U.S. channel as well as sister network Nat Geo Mundo. Live broadcasts – with real-time translations – will also air across Latin America, Italy, France, Turkey, Germany, the UK and a few Asian countries.

International markets that are going live were chosen partly based on time zone, but also based on input from regional managers.

The network will also be pushing Brain Surgery Live across ancillary and social platforms in hopes of sparking a conversation around the evolution and future of DBS.

“We are going to raise scientific platforms, initiatives and conversations that you wouldn’t necessarily deal with if you were pulling together a straight medical program,” says Pastore, who adds that Nat Geo’s future live events will similarly be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Our mandate is not to find some kind of quantifiable live hour mark,” he adds. “There clearly needs to be a real impact and a real point with respect to what is the conversation we’re trying to start and why now?”

  • Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss will air on October 25 at 9 p.m. EST and 6 p.m. PST in the U.S. on Nat Geo and Nat Geo Mundo.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.