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Why Despite Its Roots in Doc Programming, Nat Geo's Been Finding New Success in Scripted Films

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire November 22, 2013 at 12:29PM

National Geographic Channels president Howard T. Owens talks introducing scripted programming to a brand known for docs and nature fare, making "smartertainment" and the inherent optimism of doomsday preppers.
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'Killing Lincoln'
National Geographic Channel 'Killing Lincoln'

What appealed to you about the "Killing..." books, and how did you get involved with Ridley Scott's company Scott Free?

A friend of mine -- George Freeman, who's a motion picture agent at William Morris -- told me that they represented [the first book "Killing Lincoln"] and O'Reilly, and they were putting it together with Ridley Scott and Scott Free. I had told him that I was potentially coming to National Geographic Channels, and I said, "We should do this," and then it's one of those things that actually happened. I came in the first day, and I had the book in my briefcase, and everyone here [loved the idea].

The books aren't explicitly or overtly political, but Bill O'Reilly is a loaded personality to some, and Nat Geo is a corporate sibling of Fox News Channel. Were you concerned about these connections at all? That they could cause a more liberal segment of your audience to avoid the films thinking they may contain a certain political agenda?

It was not a factor. O'Reilly's political affiliations aren't really our interest. That's not why we're in business with him. We're in business with him because he's a dynamic storyteller who tells history in a unique, cool and fun way, and in that regard, as a storyteller, he's a great creative partner for National Geographic Channel.

'Doomsday Preppers'
'Doomsday Preppers'

The first two "Killing..." films are formally different from each other. "Killing Lincoln" felt a little more like a hybrid with scripted drama and a talking head narrator, while "Killing Kennedy" was a straightforward dramatization. Why the difference?

It was a natural growth of where we were in the channel's trajectory a year ago versus where we are today. Internally, our goal is to make people love this stuff as much as we do. We're striving to create authentic entertainment that connects with our audience. So we did "Killing Lincoln," and that was ambitious for us -- it had Tom Hanks [narrating], and it had Billy Campbell and an incredible cast. It was our highest-rated [broadcast to date]; it looked cool; and I think it was a unique hybrid of unscripted and scripted in many ways.

We decided "Killing Kennedy" would be different. This would be a fully scripted film that continues the direction we're going for with our factual scripted fare. It appeals to people on several levels. On one level, if you're a Kennedy aficionado, it tells you new things that you may not have heard about, such as Lee Harvey Oswald's attempted assassination of General [Edwin] Walker or the timeline between Kennedy and Oswald. But on a different level, it also ignites younger people's interests in Kennedy, the assassination and what it meant to the country; how dangerous and turbulent this event was. So we're leading with entertainment, trying to make people think and have fun at the same time.

"Doomsday Preppers" has been a big success for you, and you even launched a spinoff from it. Why do you think audiences have responded so well to the show?

"Doomsday Preppers" shows a real thriving subculture happening now in America and in the world. The ability to tell that story in a stylized and unique way, to be the first channel to get inside that subculture is what's interesting about it for us. It also challenges perceptions in terms of who these people really are. People think doomsday preppers are all doom-and-gloomers, but what we like about it is that's not the case. These are people who are ultimately optimistic, who are planning to live on, help their neighbors and provide for their families in the face of what could be real disasters coming. We like the fact that it challenges perceptions.

'American Blackout'
'American Blackout'

Do you foresee breaking out any other families or individuals like you did with "Doomsday Castle"? And you recently broadcast another scripted/unscripted hybrid "American Blackout," about what it would be like if the country lost power for 10 days. Is this a theme you see Nat Geo TV continuing to revisit?

We like having "Doomsday Preppers" as a television franchise, and we're ready to go and tell different kinds of stories. "American Blackout" was a really cool way to highlight "Preppers" this season. We did a film last year on Superstorm Sandy ["Superstorm 2012"], so we're not afraid of the topic, and clearly we cover issues related to potential climate change,. We're always looking at how to bring cool stories to our audience, but I think for now, we have "Preppers" and we're happy with it.

How cautious do you have to be when it comes to the choosing the people you feature on "Doomsday Preppers"? The production must encounter some who may not be stable or dependable enough to follow around with a camera. Can you discuss the process of selecting your subjects?

We are cautious. The process conducted by Sharp Entertainment, who produces it, has been thorough, and they vet the candidates. But we're also trying to show an unfiltered look at a subculture. We use new people each week. This isn't a reality show. This is a documentary where people are doing what they really do, so I think it's probably good to show what people do.

Many of the shows you're overseeing now seem more serious, at least in their subject matter, and less pure entertainment than much of what you produced while at Reveille. Do you think your background has provided you with any special perspective as you continue to grow Nat Geo's programming and further branch into different sorts of programming efforts?

My 10 years of producing a lot of different types of TV have allowed me to respect how difficult, challenging and rewarding it is to be part of an emerging channel. And I'm not the only one: [CEO} David Lyle and other people have been successful producers with experience on both sides of the table. This experience allows us to communicate with our creative partners in a way that creates a mutual understanding.

Storytellers like to not be put in boxes; we like to tell different stories. We like serious stories, but we also have shows like "Diggers." "Brain Games" is about neurology, a serious topic, but it's as serious as you make it. It's a fun show that's interesting -- you can learn a ton, but you can also sit there and play along. As a television channel, our first and foremost compact with our viewers is to entertain them, and that is the most imperative thing we do.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, National Geographic Channel, Killing Kennedy, Killing Lincoln, Ridley Scott, Act of Valor, Doomsday Preppers, Howard T. Owens, Network Interviews