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Upfront: Nat Geo Hopes to Build on Strong 2012

Sibling network Nat Geo Wild growing its audience too — including plenty of women

Last year, National Geographic set out to launch more series than its typical one-offs, and struck gold with survivalist docuseries “Doomsday Preppers.” The skein, which focuses on the American “prepping for disaster” subcultures, secured record-breaking ratings for the cabler, making 2012 Nat Geo’s strongest year to date.

Nat Geo CEO David Lyle understands that “Preppers” gives the net an advantage when it comes to wooing advertisers this week at its upfront meetings.

“We find ourselves in the position of having ongoing franchises that are a part of our upfront now,” Lyle told Variety. “There’s ‘Doomsday Preppers,’ and there’s also ‘Diggers.’ We’re in a wonderful position.”

“Preppers” is not the only program that drew notable viewership to the now 12-year-old cabler over the last several months. Frosh series “Inside Combat Rescue” and “Wicked Tuna” have also drawn steady ratings for Nat Geo in its key demo of adults 25-54.

Nevertheless, “Doomsday” remains the new backbone for the net, standing as Nat Geo’s highest-rated series of all time and drawing over 1.3 million viewers in its November season-two preem.

Nat Geo prexy Howard T. Owens said: “We have done a lot of things last year… but ‘Doomsday’ is our signature series that put us on the map as a place to go for great series TV that’s different. It was part of a production and creative move by us to look for subcultures that you didn’t know existed or that are misunderstood.”

Indeed, before the TLC stronghold on bizarro behaviors and niche worlds emerged, National Geographic offered shocking fare with its series “Taboo,” and tested the Amish waters with its own docuseries before the subculture shot to trend-forging proportion with TLC’s “Breaking Amish.”

But in a cable era where copy cat skeins are everywhere, Owens is confident that Nat Geo can maintain a distinct voice in the reality space.

“We don’t try to compete with other networks,” Owens said. “While A&E has ‘Duck Dynasty’ and there are similarities between networks, we pride ourselves on being authentic… We have a huge, 125-year-old history of citizen science, exploration and adventure that we can tap into.”

Nat Geo is also continuing its push into the scripted realm as well with “Killing Kennedy,” after “Seal Team Six” and then “Killing Lincoln” both performed strongly on the net. (“Lincoln” drew a record-breaking 3.4 million during its debut in February.)

As its foray in scripted programming continues, the cabler is eyeing primarily-factual drama films, though Lyle doesn’t count out other forms of storytelling.

“We’re looking into a miniseries right now, and we might look at a series too,” Lyle stated.

Owens chimed in: “We are developing scripts that have the potential to be two-hour backdoor pilots for series.”

The Nat Geo team is particularly excited about “American Blackout,” a recently greenlit two-hour special that Lyle describes as “like ‘Cloverfield,’ with a touch of ‘Blair Witch’ and ‘War of the Worlds.’ ”

From Raw TV Limited, “Blackout” imagines the first two weeks immediately following a catastrophic blackout and how preppers would react to the disaster. Complementing themes seen in “Doomsday Preppers,” Owens says the special will “be filmed as a full-throttle disaster movie.”

Meanwhile, sibling cabler Nat Geo Wild has seen substantial growth since its inception three years ago, up 28% among total viewers compared to last year and currently available in more than 57 million households.

Though the net initially drew older male demos thanks to its inventory of wildlife content, it has since begun skewing female after the debut of shows like “The Incredible Dr. Pol.” Since Nat Geo tends to skew decidely male, with men making up 61% of its primetime aud, Wild execs see the sibling cabler as an opportunity to establish a family and femme-centric net.

“The attitude of [Wild] is fun and inspiring,” said Geoff Daniels, exec veep and general manager at Wild. “Our new shows have brought in women.”

Owens added: “There is an opportunity with Wild to cultivate a more robust family viewing experience and that certainly includes women. On Wild, with shows like ‘Dr. Pol,’ more women are drawn in than men… and we embrace that.”

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