'National Geographic Wild' to air by March 31

Fox Cable Networks is prepping to replace the Fox Reality Channel with a new spinoff from its successful National Geographic Channel.

The new channel, National Geographic Wild, will air a mix of animal-centric and natural history programming. Cabler is already distributed internationally in territories including Hong Kong, the U.K., Turkey, Ireland and Vietnam. Channel launches next month in Australia.

Fox Cable plans to announce the new channel on Friday. Company confirmed earlier this week that it was planning on pulling the plug on Fox Reality by March 31 — and hinted that the replacement network would be a partnership with an outside entity.

In this case, that would mean National Geographic Ventures, which has partnered with Fox Cable Networks on NatGeo since the channel’s January 2001 launch.

Because of the unscripted nature of the new channel — you can’t get much more “real” than nature-oriented fare — Fox Cable Networks hopes to make a smooth transition between the old channel and the new. Nonetheless, it’s currently negotiating new affiliate deals with cable operators.

NatGeo Wild hopes to launch in Fox Reality’s subscriber base of nearly 50 million homes by spring 2010. Channel will be telecast in both standard and high-definition feeds.

“The domestic launch of NatGeo Wild is another step in the strategic evolution of our national cable channels,” said Fox National Cable Networks prexy Rich Battista. “We continually look to develop content extensions for our diverse portfolio of networks, and National Geographic is one of the world’s iconic brands — offering a slate of exceptional shows that can be enjoyed by the entire family.”

Overseas, NatGeo Wild’s fare has included programming such as “Bug Brother,” “The Kill Zone,” “Crittercam” and “Big Cat Diary.”

Programming already tapped for NatGeo Wild include “Africa’s Lost Eden,” “Casey Anderson Programs,” “Rebel Monkeys,” “Mystery Gorilla” and “National Geographic’s Wildest Moments.”

NatGeo Wild reps the first of News Corp.’s international cable channels to make its way to the U.S. It’s also the first channel to be programmed globally by the same exec — Geoff Daniels, senior VP of development and production for National Geographic Channels International, who will now oversee programming for NatGeo Wild as well.

Daniels will report to National Geographic Channel content topper Steve Burns and National Geographic Channel International’s Sydney Suissa simultaneously.

Steve Schiffman has been tapped to serve as NatGeo Wild’s general manager in the U.S.

“NatGeo Wild first launched over three years ago and has been extremely successful in Europe and Asia as natural history resonates across a wide range of demographics, cultures and nationalities,” said David Haslingden, CEO of Fox International Channels and National Geographic Channels Worldwide.

Battista, Haslingden and National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey made the announcement.

Introduction of NatGeo Wild will also allow the mother NatGeo Channel to continue to focus more on its increasingly popular reality-driven fare such as “Alaska State Troopers,” “Rescue Ink,” “Dangerous Encounters” and “The Dog Whisperer.”

In recent years, NatGeo has been balancing those series with the nature, science and environment shows familiar to readers of National Geographic magazine.

In differentiating the two, Fox Cable Networks said NatGeo will focus on the “rich tapestry of adventure, exploration, culture and science programming, including a select number of natural history specials,” while NatGeo Wild will solely focus on series and specials in the wildlife arena.

Chief competitors to NatGeo Wild will include rival Discovery Communication’s recently revamped Animal Planet network.

“They’re now going to a channel that has a ready-built brand,” said one insider. “Once you see the strategy behind it, you’ll say, ‘oh, I get it.’ “

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