National Geographic Channel U.S.: Extraordinary explorers

In 2001, National Geographic Channel came to the U.S., having made impact in the UK, Europe, Australia and Asia. In its first decade, it has served to reinvent the 123-year-old brand for the television audience, driven innovation in the production of non-fiction television, and through dogged determination, been telling some incredible stories.
March 1, 2011

In 1985, oceanographer and National Geographic Society star Robert Ballard had 12 days to find and inspect the Titanic wreck before he had to return the vessel he was using, the RN Knorr, to port. His discovery became a worldwide news event and the resulting special, Secrets of the Titanic, solidified Nat Geo’s reputation as a leader in technology, exploration and entertainment.

Two decades later, director/producer Peter Schnall would race against the clock with Ballard, producing, shooting and editing the National Geographic Channel special Return to Titanic as they sailed toward the wreck site. This time the stakes were slightly different.

“In the 20 years in between [the specials], cable stations like Discovery had grabbed the reins and so Geographic wanted to bring it back into its court, so to speak,” says Schnall, founder of Partisan Pictures. “We went back, not only to the Titanic with Robert Ballard, who had not been back there for 20 years, but we made it a live broadcast from the middle of the North Atlantic, which was not an easy feat to say the least.”

Indeed. Days before the Sunday night live broadcast, the remotely-operated underwater camera, ROV Hercules, failed. The crew managed to revive it and sent it on the 12,000-ft. journey to the ocean floor the day of the broadcast. It arrived at the Titanic just in time to go live.

Return to Titanic attracted 1.6 million viewers, earning National Geographic Channel (NGC) its highest ratings at the time. “It paid off,” says Schnall. “It basically said, ‘We’re back, we’re here and we’re doing the kind of shows we’re famous for.’”


National Geographic Channel U.S., a joint venture between National Geographic Television & Film and Fox Cable Networks, launched in January 2001 in 10 million homes. A month after Titanic aired, the network surpassed 50 million homes and today it is available in 71 million.

In the decade since its inception, the network has faced a slightly different challenge than that of its competitors in the natural history, popular science and culture space: how to grow a 123-year-old brand synonymous with high-quality production values and scientific accuracy while satisfying cable subscribers’ desire for faster-paced, personality-led programming.

Another challenge – how to produce programs that could rival the big-budget specials National Geographic Television’s flagship documentary series Explorer had been producing since the mid-1960s, but with modern cable budgets.

“Geographic was no stranger to TV at that point,” says Russell Howard, SVP of communications at NGC, of the lead-up to the channel’s launch. “The brand has such a high level of quality associated with it that we knew we had to come out of the gate looking and feeling like a fully-formed network, and that was the greatest challenge that we felt we needed to live up to.”

National Geographic Channel came to the U.S. after having established itself in other territories. The first National Geographic Channel launched in the UK, Europe and Australia in 1997, followed by National Geographic Channel Asia in 1998. The channel is seen today in more than 140 countries, available in some 160 million homes.

Though programming trends can shift, Nat Geo has lived up to its “spirit of exploration” mandate by maintaining unwavering focus on technological innovation behind the camera, through its rigorous fact-checking division and its ability to find new angles for old stories.

Initially, the network’s programming strategy was more news-focused and heavy on documentaries that examined events of the past. Over time, its programming has evolved to encompass defining specials, character-led science series, docusoaps and franchise weeks, such as this April’s Expedition Week. With the launch of the wildlife-specific Nat Geo Wild in the U.S. a year ago, NGC now only focuses on the most innovative or the bluest of blue chip when it comes to the wildlife space.

“On the programming side, the strategy we’ve followed is one of working with the world’s best filmmakers, from the most experienced to the newest ones with great techniques and the newest insights,” says NGC executive vice-president of content Steve Burns.

“We are this all-access path,” he adds. “We can get to places that others can’t.”

Some milestone specials and series from the past 10 years include Unlocking DaVinci’s Code, Inside 9/11, The Gospel of Judas, Stonehenge Decoded, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, Waking the Baby Mammoth, Wild Justice, Great Migrations and of course, Explorer.

Many of the potential production hurdles these programs presented were overcome thanks to the brand’s scrupulous reputation. Schnall, who has produced specials On Board Air Force One, On Board Marine One and Secret Service Files, says he was able to get access to the president’s plane and security personnel because the White House and the military trusted Nat Geo would not compromise its security protocols.

Contrast the 2009 version of On Board Air Force One with an earlier special Partisan did in 2000 just before the Channel launch, and the differences between the Nat Geo of the 1990s and today is clear. Not only is the pacing faster, but the 2009 show sported a focus more rooted in a fresh, contemporary storytelling angle, rather than events of the past.


With the channel’s shift from the past to the present came a greater emphasis on domestic issues. Thom Beers, who worked with NGT as an executive at Turner prior to founding Original Productions, says that since NGC U.S. launched it has made a concerted effort to apply its expertise in global exploration to its own backyard.

“They were originally much more known for studying and getting inside of cultures around the world,” he says. “What the network clearly did was to turn that focus on America a lot more. Think globally, but act locally. They realized very quickly that the U.S. audience is extraordinarily geocentric and so they made that adjustment quickly.”

The added emphasis on the U.S. opened the doors to companies such as Original, which specializes in character-driven blue collar docu-series, such as NGC’s popular border patrol show Wild Justice, which premiered in 2010.

The program originated as a special about life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border on Explorer, which sometimes serves as an incubator for other series. “It’s an issue that’s top of mind for people because they read about it in the paper every day,” says Michael Rosenfeld, president of National Geographic Television, the channel’s production arm. “The audience clearly responded. It rated well. Based on that, we decided to do the series.”

NGC’s first big, breakout personality was pet expert Cesar Millan, star of The Dog Whisperer, which enters its seventh season this year. When producers at MPH Entertainment first pitched the network on the show, their footage was rough and raw, but Millan’s star power shone through.

“That was a real changing point for us in terms of having a recognizable personality and a series that the channel became known for,” says Bridget Whalen-Hunnicutt, SVP of global development. “He’d not been on television before, but you could see his gift, his talent and his authenticity. Those attributes were what we were looking for then and they’re still what we are looking for now: people who have a unique gift and are experts in their field. It’s definitely not an easy thing to find.”

After Dog Whisperer, NGC developed Monster Fish starring Zeb Hogan, an expert in weird freshwater fish, and Shark Men.

The push for more character-led programming does not, however, usurp the company’s insistence on accuracy, meaning producers interested in pitching a personality need to do their homework. Nat Geo’s fact-checking department is notoriously thorough. It questions every statistic, opinion and nuance in a story.

“Sometimes you feel like a brand is a public persona but it’s not necessarily the private persona. National Geographic is an identity that everyone in that building has bought into,” says Mickey Stern, EP at BASE Productions (Known Universe).


In July 2010, NGC centralized its global development groups into one office under Whalen-Hunnicutt. All proposals for original series and coproductions now go through DC and are funneled out to various channels around the world. The channel partially did this because streamlining the commissioning process makes it easier to find ideas that work globally and then, working through its international offices, tweaking them to suit local markets without going through multiple distributors.

“What it offers to the filmmaker is quick answers,” says Burns. “We’ve taken our budgets and we have one team making the decisions and, as a result, we can turn those decisions around quickly and efficiently.”

“When you commission something you own all rights in perpetuity. You own that show and it’s good business, particularly if you can find ideas that are going to travel around,” adds National Geographic Channel/ Nat Geo Wild president Steve Schiffman. “However, one of the things that differentiates National Geographic relative to some of our competitors is that we’re also very flexible in how we structure deals.

“Even though we would obviously like all territories, we are not dogmatic that it’s everything or bust,” he adds.

Innovations in tech are also an integral part of Nat Geo’s mandate. In the basement of its Washington, DC building the company’s Remote Imaging Lab develops newer, smaller camera systems, such as the Critter Cam, that can peer into insect colonies or shoot from the point of view of a dolphin.

Often the focus of special events such as Great Migrations is not only to bring new scientific information to light, but also to incorporate the emerging technology that makes the data possible, such as the tiny sensors scientists were able to affix to Monarch butterflies to track their flight patterns for the 2010 series.

“They’re sort of like Q in the James Bond movies,” says Rosenfeld. “You can go in there and see what’s new or also ask them to build something for you.”

It’s a tradition that goes back to the Alvin ROV camera that captured the first images of the Titanic wreckage. In the years since, Nat Geo has worked with a variety of DPs and filmmakers who’ve created innovative camera systems, such as Martin Dorn, who specializes in dollying through ant colonies and combining infrared and thermal technologies to shoot lions at night time.

For example, Civil Warriors, an upcoming Civil War three-part special from National Geographic Channel harnesses software that allows the filmmaker to insert live action into archival photographs.

“We’ve helped evolve the documentary form in non-fiction entertainment,” says Burns about how NGC’s dedication to innovation feeds its programming. “Part of that is finding new storytelling techniques with which to treat old stories that everybody knows. [There are] iconic stories that people want to know more and more about, and we just have to keep telling the stories in new ways.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.