Summit ’16: Nat Geo’s Monroe “investing heavily in change”

In a keynote interview at Realscreen Summit on Monday (February 1), National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe (pictured) discussed the company's evolving programming strategy, standing out in the white noise of television and developing scripted content.
February 2, 2016

In a keynote interview at Realscreen Summit on Monday (February 1), National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe (pictured) discussed the company’s evolving global programming strategy, standing out in the white noise of television and developing scripted content.

Since her appointment as CEO of National Geographic Global Networks last November, Monroe has overseen the global programming, operations and marketing for the National Geographic Channels (NGC) brand around the world. Her watch includes managing the operations of National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo People and Nat Geo Mundo, as well as National Geographic Studios, the company’s in-house production studio.

Monroe first joined NGC as head of marketing in 2012 from HBO during a time of “trial and error” and experimentation. While she said the focus at the time was less on brand and more on chasing audiences and ratings, Monroe acknowledged that the previous strategic model may have been misguided as it wasn’t purely reflective of the mission viewers came to expect from the scientific and educational institution.

“I feel like that yellow border that is the National Geographic logo, that is now my north star, that is now my compass. It’s pointing me in the very same quality and distinctiveness that… people have come to expect from National Geographic for more than 120 years,” said the Washington, DC-based exec, who was interviewed by Lori McCreary, CEO and producer at Revelations Entertainment (pictured, left).

Addressing delegates, Monroe stated that the media brand is currently undergoing a period of transformation in the hopes of becoming a world-leading destination for premium science, adventure and exploration content.

To better represent the Nat Geo brand, the media conglomerate plans to produce more distinctive programming through partnerships with A-List creative talent that will focus semi-exclusively on higher quality, bigger budgets and “creatively ambitious programming with scale, scope and entertainment value.”

Monroe noted that the transformation has already begun, pointing to Nat Geo’s forthcoming slate of big name series including the Morgan Freeman-hosted series The Story of God, which premieres April 3 and is produced by Revelations Entertainment; the Darren Aronofsky- and Nutopia-made One Strange Rock; and the Imagine Entertainment- and Radical Media-produced Mars.

In recent years, the net has seen an increased viewer and advertiser demand for scripted series. The channel has responded in kind via the hire of Carolyn Bernstein as executive VP and head of global scripted development and production, but Monroe was insistent that the majority of content transmitting across NGC will remain unscripted.

“We’re going to be very selective in what we do, but for scripted to make sense there have to be two things at play,” she said. “Whatever story we tackle should be grounded in some degree of authenticity, and the underlying theme should really feel organic and make sense for our brand.”

Elsewhere, the network is marking its return to developing high caliber feature documentaries after having “abandoned” the genre in years prior. Projects in the works include Alex Gibney’s Parched, on the looming global water crisis; Simon and Jonathan Chinn‘s LA 92, about the LA riots; Brett Morgen‘s untitled Jane Goodall project; and an as yet untitled film from Sebastian Junger focusing on the wars in Iraq and Syria.

The driving force behind National Geographic’s shift into premium content, Monroe explained, was that in the last year alone, more than 750 original non-fiction series aired across primetime cable television. Nearly half of those programs – 350 – were series premieres.

“There’s no way to break through all that clutter without being exceptional and without developing and finding shows that people will love,” Monroe explained. “At Nat Geo, we have a very specific brand, so my goal is not to appeal to everyone, I just want to be really, really special to some and stand out.

“We’re certainly investing heavily in change. It’s not going to happen over night and we can epically fail but I would rather fail swinging really big in a bad ass programming space that we’re super passionate about.”

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

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