The National Geographic Channel has been slowly stepping away from the type of nature and travel specials you’d once associate with the brand, toward poppier, ratings-friendlier unscripted series like “Doomsday Preppers,” “Locked Up Abroad” and “Brain Games.” While also being home to programs like “Jobs That Bite,” sister network Nat Geo Wild has picked up some of that slack — at the Television Critics Association press tour, kicking off today in Beverly Hills, the channel showed clips of the “Planet Earth”-like “One Life,” a lavish nature special narrated by Daniel Craig and set to air on December 2013. And Nat Geo did announce “Cosmos,” a “reboot” of the Carl Sagan series hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson and executive produced by Seth MacFarlane, at, of all places, Comic-Con.
But it’s Nat Geo’s odd forays into scripted fare that have been especially interesting in form, if not necessary in viewing experience yet outside the realm of history buff dads. Addressing the crowd, CEO David Lyle noted the network is “very close to announcing our first scripted series, hopefully this fall.” In the meantime, the channel has dabbled in a series of assassination-focused original films that have combined a doc approach with actors and scrupulously researched scripts. The first, “Killing Lincoln,” aired earlier this year, and “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Jesus” are set to follow, all from Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and based on bestsellers by Bill O’Reilly (yes, that Bill O’Reilly).
“Killing Kennedy” director Nelson McCormick, writer Kelly Masterson, and cast members Ginnifer Goodwin (via satellite), Rob Lowe, Jack Noseworthy, Will Rothhaar and Michelle Trachtenberg were all at TCA to take questions about the film and about playing such iconic figures from history, after two videos that showcased Lowe’s performance in particular and the heavy inevitability of the tragedy at the film’s center. “It’s like playing a character in Shakespeare,” Lowe said of acting as a man who’s already been portrayed many times in the media. “For me, it was very much about capturing him as a man… as a flawed, complicated and heroic guy.” “I don’t feel that they have been thoroughly humanized in the past, in other films,” agreed Goodwin.
In terms of the details chosen for the film as it follows Kennedy (Lowe) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Rothhaar) to their intersection with history, Masterson noted he avoided conspiracy theories.
“I’m going to tell the story of the facts as I know them,” Masterson said, adding he tried to use good, solid sources.
“It’s always way simpler than we think — I think it scares us to think that things can be that simple and huge horrible things can be the act of one person,” Lowe added about why he believes Oswald was the lone culprit. He confessed to being a fan of JFK who has “always been interested in Camelot — in the romanticized version of it and the geopolitical ‘West Wing’ nerd part of myself.”
As to how the cast and crew felt about working off a bestseller by Bill O’Reilly despite most not sharing his political leanings, Lowe said “I didn’t think of it at all, because the book had already come out and been successful, and anytime you can do material that’s already proven to be of value to people is a good thing. To me, that was as far as I saw it. And if you read the book it’s nothing if not very straightforward about the facts of the story.”
As to whether he’s worried about whether O’Reilly’s involvement will turn other people off, Lowe shrugged that “he kicks everybody’s ass on a nightly basis,” so if only his fans tune in, it’ll hardly be hurting. “Killing Kennedy” just wrapped production and will premiere in November of 2013, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the JFK’s death.
Outside of the assassination-centric series, Nat Geo also has “American Blackout,” an odd-looking, partially crowd-sourced disaster special that imagines how preppers would react to a major blackout, and “Miracle on the Hudson,” about US Airways Flight 1549. Lyle showed the crowd a photo from the latter production, including what he called “one of the largest outdoor green screen sets every erected in the UK.”
Nat Geo is also following up Felix Baumgartner’s live “Space Dive” with another live daredevil event promising possible horrific death — “Live Climb,” in which rock climber Alex Honnold will scale a structure, though the exact building will remain confidential until closer to the climb for safety reasons, per Lyle.