National Geographic bows o’seas channels

SYDNEY — A 15-year-old dream is coming true on Monday for the 110-year-old National Geographic Society (NGS).

On that day, the Washington-based group, which is dedicated to increasing global geographic and scientific knowledge, bows its first self-branded channels ever in the U.K. and Ireland (on Rupert Murdoch’s satcaster BSkyB), Scandinavia (on cabler Telenor) and Australia (on Murdoch’s cabler Foxtel). The services are jointly owned by BSkyB and National Geographic Channels (NGC), a co-venture between National Geographic TV and General Electric’s NBC, which retains creative control. The Oz and Scandi channels are repackaged versions of the U.K. service.

The channels draw on the editorial resources of the National Geographic Society, the world’s largest not-for-profit scientific and educational body, whose acclaimed magazines and books have a global readership of 44 million, and which funds about 500 expeditions each year for scientists, explorers, writers, photographers and film crews. The for-profit TV arm has won about 800 awards, including 85 Emmys.

Cold feet thaw

Admitting it was unusual for a U.S. group whose docus have long aired to high ratings on NBC and Ted Turner’s TBS to bow a channel overseas rather than at home, NGC prexy Sandy McGovern told Daily Variety the society had wanted to bow a U.S. channel in 1982 but got cold feet.

“It made sense for us to go overseas first as technology in the U.S. is so constrained that you have trouble getting carriage, while I realized there was a window of opportunity overseas,” she said.

McGovern is confident of bowing a Spanish soundtrack channel in South America in the first quarter of 1998 (with a separate Portuguese soundtrack feed for Brazil), which will be exported to Spain and Portugal. While carriage is not finalized, National Geographic TV has a distrib co-venture with Euro feevee entity Canal Plus.

Japan will follow in 1998, before the U.S. (where NBC will sell ad space) in 1999, by which time McGovern expects to develop programming exclusively for the feevee services to ensure that “it will be hard for people to ignore us — especially with NBC as our partner.”

Band widening

For Foxtel, the bow of National Geographic together with the Lifestyle Channel (airing an irreverent mix of docus and gameshows about home, food, wine, gardening and health from local producers and the likes of BBC and Channel 4) brings to 35 the number of channels offered and will no doubt be used to justify a A$3 ($2.22) hike in basic subscription fees to $31.78 a month. Foxtel programming director Brian Walsh says the cabler now has 250,000 subscribers, while rival cabler Optus Vision’s growth appears to have stalled at less than 190,000.

Interestingly, Foxtel’s lineup also includes Discovery, which research says is the second-most popular channel on Foxtel.

“We welcome competition in the market,” Discovery Oz-Kiwi director Deborah Stewart said, while noting Discovery is an established brand in 112 million households worldwide. “Foxtel have invested millions of dollars in our brand, and we’re confident they’ll continue that investment.”

But according to McGovern, who was formerly Discovery’s international business development senior veep, “My whole time at Discovery, the biggest fear was that National Geographic would launch a channel.”

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