A year after National Geographic revived ‘Explorer,’ the cable network is radically reimagining the long-running documentary series as a studio-based talk show.
When the new version debuts Nov. 14, execs hope the format will better allow the show to penetrate and influence the pop-culture zeitgeist.
“Across the television landscape, everybody is looking at how do you reimagine factual genres,” says Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production for NGC. “For us, ‘Explorer’ is a very important sub-brand. It’s synonymous with the history of the channel. This is about moving that forward.”
In the past two years, the network has shifted its focus from character-driven reality back to science, natural history and adventure with an emphasis on high-end content that can compete with premium outlets such as Netflix and HBO.
The decision to rescue ‘Explorer’ – which debuted in 1985 – from a five-year hiatus last year sent a signal that the channel was serious about investigative documentary. However, the rebooted version was short lived.
Each hour-long episode focused on a single story, some more hard-hitting than others. Debut episodes featured Warlords of Ivory, a documentary thriller about the African ivory trade, while another featured TV scientist Bill Nye and Arnold Schwarzenegger humorously unpacking the issue of climate change.
“After last season we had to take a step back to reimagine it,” explains Pastore. “How do you make it more dynamic? How do you make it bigger? How do we make it louder? Breaking the format was the first place to start.”
The new version will similarly feature a mix of serious investigation and lighter fare, but in the form of shorter field pieces, round-table discussions and interviews in front of a live studio audience anchored by a presenter.
Former BBC Radio presenter Richard Bacon (pictured) will host the show, which is being executive produced by former Comedy Central exec Lou Wallach (The Colbert Report) and Nick McKinney and Meghan O’Hara (The IFC Media Project).
Nat Geo is not the only factual-focused cable net experimenting with studio formats. In September, Animal Planet greenlit the comedy-variety series Animal Review starring comedian Anthony Anderson and, earlier this year, History aired the panel show Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.
Pastore says the talk show format will make ‘Explorer’ more responsive to conversations happening in the world, but without chaining it to the 24-hour news cycle. Nat Geo has ordered 25 episodes this year and has scheduled a rolling calendar production as correspondents fan out around the world and then convene in New York for the studio shoots.
Bacon will then host panels and debates about the field pieces. Most importantly, he will give the show a consistent face and voice – something ‘Explorer’ lacked last season.
“We have to build this connectivity between viewers and our host and our studio,” says Wallach, whose credits also include AMC’s The Talking Dead and Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show. “We’re not trying to emulate Stephen Colbert or John Oliver or any other comedic competitors. The idea is to give ['Explorer'] a point of view – just like Stephen did in the way he got his point out there with satire and irony.
“This is an entertainment show to me,” he adds. “Entertainment and substance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
The challenge for Wallach and his team will be to convince viewers, young and old, that watching ‘Explorer’ “doesn’t feel like homework”, while striking a balance between relevant and timeless, humor and hard news.
The field correspondents come from a variety of backgrounds and include Warlords of Ivory journalist Bryan Christy; Ryan Duffy, the Vice reporter who notoriously accompanied Dennis Rodman to North Korea in 2013; stand-up comic and former Late Show with David Letterman writer Jena Friedman; South Asia-based freelance reporter Tania Rashid; and political commentator and blogger Baratunde Thurston.
The upcoming season will include pieces that run from five to 14 minutes on topics such as the cottage industry that has sprung up around traditional funerals on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi; a small Louisiana town that arrests people at five times the rate of Baltimore; and an Istanbul-based satirical video production team working to get news into Syria.
“These are stories that aren’t going away any time soon,” explains Wallach. “By the time they air four-to-10 weeks after we shoot, they’re going to feel relevant. We’re introducing a conversation either you didn’t know about or you thought you know something about. We’re not here to take a political position or a social position.”
A large research and production team meets twice a week to bounce around ideas and potential execution. Would a story work as a 60 Minutes-style exposé? As animation? As a mock movie trailer?
“There is a high bar,” says Wallach. “But with the resources and support they’ve given us, we’d be fools not to take advantage of the idea that we can go around the world and find any story that feels compelling to us.”