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Gaining stature by giving up nature

Nat Geo Channel sees huge gains in viewership for 2004

NEW YORK — The National Geographic Channel is working on an episode of its “Explorer” series called “Hogzilla,” which confirms the existence of a 12-foot-long, 1,000-pound boar sporting 9-inch tusks that was killed and buried last year on a farm near Macon, Ga.

Hogzilla may be an appropriate metaphor for the monster year racked up by the Nat Geo Channel itself, which engineered bigger gains in viewership throughout 2004 than any other ad-supported cable network in four key categories: total viewers (up 66%), people 18 to 49 (up 77%), 18 to 34 (up 81%) and 25 to 54 (up 71%).

The growth in the number of young viewers is particularly important to the network because too many older viewers are a turnoff to advertisers obsessed with getting their messages out to people still willing to try new products. (The gospel on Madison Avenue: As people get older, they resist change.)

Younger audiences may be revved up by the switch in programming from what John Ford, executive VP of programming for Nat Geo, calls “last year’s focus on tribes and animals” to such specials as: how the modern-day Mafia controls the world drug trade; the latest attempts to recover artifacts from the sunken Titanic; and the real story behind the DaVinci code.

Added to the network’s hipper programming are its impeccable showbiz credentials: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns a two-thirds stake in the Nat Geo channel and, through Fox Cable Networks, has taken on sole responsibility for clearing it on cable systems and satellite distributors in the U.S.

Under Fox’s aegis, Nat Geo added more than 5 million subscribers in the past year, swelling its total to 51.6 million. That’s impressive, but the network still has a long way to go to match the circulation of nonfiction-programming competitors such as Discovery Channel (89.6 million) and A&E (88.5 million).

All in due time, says Laureen Ong, president of the Nat Geo Channel, who adds that the network has begun turning a profit after only four years of operation. Driving those earnings are the license fees Nat Geo is pocketing from cable ops and satcasters, which leapt from $108.1 million in 2004 to a projected $123.7 million in 2005, according to Kagan Research.

Also, more viewers mean more dollars flowing in from advertisers. The network should get a nice boost in ad revenues, Kagan says, from $45.9 million in 2004 to a projected $54.9 million in 2005. Wall Street analysts put the overall value of the Nat Geo Channel at about $750 million.

Nat Geo’s programming budgets are keeping pace with its fixation on luring more viewers. John Ford, executive VP of programming for the network, is high on a two-hour special about evolution called “Search for the Ultimate Survivor,” scheduled for March 20. “Survivor” will circle the globe to report on new scientific theories about the authentic roots of man.

Another two-hour special, “In the Womb,” on March 6, will use the latest technology to “open a window into the hidden world of the fetus and explore each trimester in amazing new detail.”

Specials like these will help to inflate Nat Geo’s programming expenses from $51.2 million in 2004 to a projected $61.4 million in 2005, according to Kagan.

But one-hour series are the week-in/week-out bedrock of Nat Geo’s schedule, Ford says, citing “Expeditions to the Edge,” “Interpol Investigates,” “Seconds From Disaster,” “Magastructures” and “Naked Science.”

As a Sunday-night series bellwether, the network has picked up exclusive cable rights to “National Geographic Explorer,” most recently on MSNBC, which has run continuously on cable TV since it started on Nickelodeon in 1985. New hourlong episodes of “Explorer,” which Nat Geo calls the longest-running documentary series on cable TV, premiered Jan 9 at 8 p.m. on the network.

“As we broaden our programming to take in science, technology, exploration and adventure,” Ford says, “our goal is to make it all relevant to today’s viewers.”

The parent National Geographic Society is gung-ho about Ford’s blueprint, says Ong. She adds that the society’s jealously guarded brand is 116 years old and, following the precepts of Darwin, has survived and prospered by evolving to keep up with the times.

And the Nat Geo Channel’s evolution could eventually make it the most lucrative business within the operation of the entire society.