As the burgeoning digital and over-the-top streaming industry has continued its advance, traditional broadcasters find themselves on notice — remain relevant, or else.
For National Geographic, that means employing an ambitious programming philosophy that touts “going deeper, pushing boundaries, going further” as a global destination for premium science, adventure and exploration content.
The strategy has featured some bold moves in the science space. The first season of Nat Geo’s acclaimed documentary-scripted hybrid series Mars, about a fictitious crew mission to the red planet in 2033 from Imagine Entertainment and Radical Media, garnered more than 36 million viewers worldwide, delivered ratings three times the channel average, and became the most DVRed series in network history, according to the company.
The Fisher Stevens-directed Before the Flood, meanwhile, marked Nat Geo’s most-watched film on record, reaching 60 million viewers worldwide across platforms. The doc, produced by and featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, focused on climate change and aired commercial-free across digital and streaming platforms around the world in late October 2016 in a conscious bid to get the film in front of a wide audience ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
The “premium” approach has also worked for a wider range of subject matter. Katie Couric’s 2017 two-hour documentary Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric explored the topic of gender through the lenses of science, society and culture, and weaved it all together through personal stories and experiences. The program performed well for Nat Geo, pulling in more than 2 million Americans and 6.8 million viewers globally, the network said.
In addition, the full documentary was presented on Facebook, where it racked up 4.4 million total views, according to Nat Geo.
Inspired by her own personal journey in developing that project, Couric is returning to the network with a six-part investigative docuseries, slated to premiere in April in 171 countries and in 45 languages.
Produced in-house by National Geographic Studios, Katie Couric Media and ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions, the tentatively titled America Inside Out with Katie Couric will follow the former Today Show host as she journeys across the American landscape to explore some of the most important and controversial issues shaping and defining the nation’s shifting identity.
Each hour-long episode will aim to unearth truths about the complexities of religion, race, technology and cultural norms, while highlighting the humanity lurking beneath the surface of the issues.
“We wanted to look at the topics that brought us right into the middle of the most seismic, epic, defining changes that are going on right now,” Jeanmarie Condon, senior executive producer of content at Lincoln Square Productions and showrunner for America Inside Out, tells realscreen.
“These are issues that ultimately touch all of us in some way, and the idea was [to have] Katie go right into the center of what’s happening, walk those fault lines and meet the people who are most intimately caught up in those changes.”
As such, America Inside Out — which had been in production from the tail end of July until the middle of December — seeks out the voices on either side of the “fault lines” framing polarizing issues in the U.S. The series tackles the tender aspects of race relations in America, exploring the controversy surrounding commemorative statues and memorials (“Re-Righting History”), anger within some white working-class communities (“White Working-Class Revolt”); and the stories of young, female Muslim entrepreneurs in Brooklyn (“Undercover Muslim”).
Other hot-button topics the series will examine include the dynamic between genders and gender bias (“The F-Word”); the ways in which technology is upending our lives (“Tech Revolution”); and the heated discussion surrounding political correctness (“PC Nation”).
From the network perspective, by breaking down each topic and exploring all sides of the debates, the docuseries attempts to capture what it’s like to be living in the moments history is being made.
“As a critically acclaimed journalist, Katie has the ability to listen to both sides in any conversation, any big topic and discussion, to really help paint a broad and comprehensive understanding of some of the most complicated topics that we face today as a culture,” says Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production at National Geographic Channel.
The series, for instance, brought the production crew to Couric’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, where she spent 72 hours with counter-protesters leading up to the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally and the violence that ensued. On the afternoon of Aug. 12, a man linked to white-supremacist groups rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Though Couric interviews white nationalist and alt-right activist Jason Kessler, a main organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, in the series’ debut episode, “Re-Righting History”, Condon asserts that the series does not provide a platform for the racism and bigotry espoused by white supremacists, Klansmen, neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates that attended the rally.
“That’s not why we were there,” the showrunner stresses. “We’re not doing the story of the alt-right at all. What we’re doing is the story of the really profound and emotional conversation that’s going on around how we retell the story of race in America.”
To illustrate the complexity within the issue, the team sought out rational voices on both sides of the argument regarding the removal of Confederate statues from public lands — a motion that was ignited by the racially motivated mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, perpetrated a year earlier by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Featured in the episode are Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer, who voted against the removal measure; Frank Earnest, a “heritage defense coordinator” for the Virginia division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, who disavowed the “Unite the Right” rally as he felt the marchers had co-opted the symbol of General Robert E. Lee to advance a nationalist agenda; and 16-year-old Charlottesville High School student Zyahna Bryant, who began a petition more than a year ago to take down Charlottesville’s statue of Lee.
“We talk to black historians who believe the statue should stay up. We’ve spoken with white Southerners who believe [the Confederate monuments] should come down,” Condon adds. “It’s very complicated, and one of the things we try to show in each episode is how complex these stories really are because we live in a world that is very reductive.
“When Katie goes out to meet people, she has boundless curiosity and this openness to understanding what other people are experiencing.”
While one of the most challenging aspects of production involved finding individuals willing to speak with Couric about some of the most painful, polarizing and personal issues of our day, Pastore says the payoff of piecing together viewpoints feeding the current cultural zeitgeist has been worth it.
“We have a history built on exploration. We didn’t talk about places around the world or some far-off distant land, we sent people to the front lines,” says Pastore when asked about how America Inside Out will fare with American audiences during a particularly contentious time in history.
“This is one of those series where Katie, in terms of her exploration of humanity, is bringing back the truth of what is happening out in the world, and that’s what our audience looks to National Geographic for.”
This article first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.