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

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

Near the beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” young George Bailey dismisses the swooning Violet’s question about his National Geographic Magazine. Of course she hadn’t heard of it, George says. It’s only for explorers, like him. Howard T. Owens became president of National Geographic Channels — including the flagship channel, as well as Nat Geo Wild — in 2011, and he wants Nat Geo to reach everyone’s inner explorer. The network’s yellow rectangle — mimicking the magazine’s border — is iconic, and since the early ’60s, National Geographic has regularly produced television specials to help perpetuate its primary mission of inspiring people to care about the world around them.

Launched in partnership with Fox Cable Networks in 2001, the National Geographic Channel initially broadcast documentary programming focused on science, history, nature and other extensions of the brand. More recently, it’s broadened its focus (and audience) with unscripted fare like “Doomsday Preppers” and “Wicked Tuna.” In March, the channel will premiere a sequel to the late Carl Sagan’s 1980 TV series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey” will be hosted by noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane. (Yes, that Seth MacFarlane.)

Nat Geo began a push into scripted programming last year by acquiring the movie “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,” which became the channel’s highest rated broadcast to date. This year, original movies “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” adapted from best-selling nonfiction books by Bill O’Reilly, each succeeded in breaking new ratings records for the network. Nat Geo currently is developing O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” as the next film in the series and last month announced its first scripted drama, “Act of Valor,” based on the 2012 film.

Owens began his entertainment career at the William Morris Agency before co-founding Reveille Productions with Ben Silverman in 2002. At Reveille, Owens oversaw and produced NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” USA’s “Nashville Star,” Fox’s “MasterChef” and FX’s “30 Days.” In the seventh of a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Owens about the direction of the channel’s scripted programming, the goal to make “smartertainment” that taps into audiences’ inner explorers, and the inherent optimism of doomsday preppers.

How do you feel the expectations of television audiences have changed over the past five or 10 years?

“The Sopranos” changed expectations of the television business and the landscape in general. From that time forward, audiences have expected TV to be a first-rate, engaging and creative media experience. TV is no longer second fiddle. All of the different types of content coming out for different devices yet all being called “television” show the range of creativity, so I use the term loosely. There’s not a lot that you can’t find on television today, and viewers expectations have evolved and are incredibly raised. Their tastes have morphed, and they’ve become selective and demanding connoisseurs of content.

How does National Geographic Channel’s original programming fulfill those demands?

We have a history of telling engaging, authentic stories in a rich aesthetic way, and we’re trying to evolve that every day. “SEAL Team Six,” which was a big scripted acquisition from The Weinstein Company, was our highest rated program of last year. This year, our two highest-rated programs have been “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” and we also had our award-winning documentary series “Inside Combat Rescue” that did incredibly well. That’s pure documentary, and I think it is one of the best things we’ve ever done.

On the other hand, we have “Brain Games,” which is a 22-minute game show that is virtually interactive television; it engages your brain. It’s a game show without a [game show] host. You stare at your TV and play games with your mind, and that’s a totally different form of television. That’s the next wave, I think: a more interactive form. But we’re trying a lot of different things in order to keep our audience invested and deliver on the promise of tapping into the explorer in everyone, which is sort of our working internal motto.

We want to entertain your brain with “smartertainment.” We’re trying to carve a different place in the TV universe because even though there is a lot of differentiation amongst channels and demographics, there has become a bit of a sameness recently in the unscripted space. We’re trying to make sure that we’re not competing with anyone creatively except ourselves.

National Geographic is one of the most well-known, established brands throughout media history. What’s the relationship between the magazine and the TV channel?

We have the National Geographic Society and the magazine as 125 years of source material and rich history. Now we have exploration of the real world, and more recently of the mind, the body and things that couldn’t have been imagined when National Geographic first started. So we try to take the risk-taking characteristics and the beauty and incredible vision that the Society and the magazine have had in the past — and still have by exploring what’s next — and show our audience inside places that they’ve never seen. National Geographic — whether it’s the magazine, the society or the channel — is always trying to break boundaries, reach new frontiers and show people life in a new way; to cause you to think a little differently through your experience.

So with that in mind, why do you think these scripted efforts have especially drawn, as you mentioned, record audiences? What’s the appeal?

In the unscripted world, you’re somewhat beholden to the archival material you have. In some instances, you can conjure cool dramatic recreations, but you still have this real actual world that you’re both emboldened by but also confined to. In the scripted world, we can break another plane. It allows us to expand our current viewers’ appetite for amazing stories, and it also allows us to find new fans and new users — because we have a robust digital model now — to engage in our content.

It also allows us to be in business with a different type of storyteller, to be in business with Ridley Scott, Rob Lowe, Harvey Weinstein and Kelly Masterson. People who make documentaries also make scripted films. People who make unscripted series also make scripted series. The emergence of television has taken a box off of creativity and allowed people to go into different genres. It has allowed great storytellers to be great storytellers. They don’t have to just be the one-hour drama director or the unscripted showrunner.

What prompted you to branch out from doc and unscripted programming, beyond the “smartertainment” series like “Brain Games” and into the scripted arena?

Primarily because we’re ambitious, and we want to be creatively risk-taking. It was a logical step for us to evolve and reach out to our audience in new and different ways, while not losing our core DNA. We felt that with “SEAL Team Six,” “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy” — and with “Act of Valor,” which we’ve announced — that we can reach our audience and evolve our storytelling capabilities. We have great creatives here at the network [which is based in Washington D.C.], and we also have strong relationships in New York, L.A. and London with people who want to tell stories and don’t want to just be confined to unscripted and documentary. It’s also where TV is going. Not that it’s all going scripted, but as a network that’s becoming supercharged and cresting creatively, we want to offer a suite of programming that is fulfilling and not just in one way. We don’t want just an unscripted-TV viewer; we want the whole TV viewer.

Do you foresee your scripted projects focusing on these fact-based stories?

I think National Geographic is based on factual storytelling. We have a compact with our audience. We respect our audience. We try to deliver on that compact to tell them what’s really real. The arena of real factual drama is not something that in any way feels limiting to us.

You mentioned “Act of Valor,” and considering that it’s your first attempt at a scripted series, what statement does it make in terms of the types of scripted Nat Geo TV will present?

The statement is that we’re in business with the Bandito Bros. and {Michael] “Mouse” McCoy, who I think has one of the most distinct and rich visual styles of any director in the space; that we are telling real hard-hitting, edgy stories with material that is based in fact and that we think will help expand the reach of the network and engage our audience.

“Act of Valor” is, in many ways, a follow-up to our successful documentary series “Inside Combat Rescue,” which was about the PJs [Pararescue Jumpers, US Air Force special operatives trained to rescue and treat personnel in combat zones], and it’s also a nice next step from our movie “SEAL Team Six.” It feels like a natural progressive evolution but also one that is a big swing and creatively interesting.

With a few notable exceptions, most TV networks have abandoned the TV movie in favor of continuing series, limited series or miniseries. Your first several scripted projects have all been feature-length film events. Do you see Nat Geo continuing in this area?

Our next scripted event will be “Killing Jesus,” based again on a Bill O’Reilly best seller . What we like is the ability to make noise and to create a moment. We like our events — scripted or unscripted — to create a conversation; to hopefully create a national discussion. We pride ourselves as being the channel of record for fact-based storytelling. We did it with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. We did it with “George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview,” which was the first time George Bush ever went on the record to talk about 9/11, on the 10th anniversary. So we have a tradition as a channel for telling stories that ignite conversation and create noise for us.

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.

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.

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.

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