How is GE best known in entertainment circles? Maybe it’s for years of commercials bringing “good things to life,” or for its savvy hire of Jack Donaghy to run East Coast television and microwave oven programming in the world of “30 Rock.”
The 123-year-old company, co-founded by Thomas Edison, has also played a very real leadership role in radio and television, dating back to the creation of those platforms, so it’s not exactly a newbie to showbiz.
Even so, the idea that Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer would sit down with a GE exec for a no-agenda, thinking-out-loud meeting — one that would be the genesis of “Breakthrough,” a National Geographic Channel series premiering Nov. 1 — might take some by surprise.
GE ended up becoming one of four producing partners on the show, embracing a creative role far beyond branding.
“I think the biggest challenge was in the beginning,” says GE vice chair Beth Comstock, who had that sprawling chat with Grazer in spring 2013. “Why does GE want to do this? Aren’t they happy just being a sponsor? Do they want to dictate everything?”
But producers don’t come much more open-minded than Grazer, co-author of the recently published “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” based on his longtime history of conversations with people outside his day-to-day work life.
“Both Brian and I have had interest over the years — and been rewarded for that interest — in the kind of intersection of science and human drama and storytelling,” says Grazer’s Imagine partner, Ron Howard, who is one of the “Breakthrough” executive producers and directors.
“When we started talking to GE, they inspired us by talking about … potentially culture-altering breakthroughs. Honestly, that word was used, and that wasn’t supposed to be the title, but that just stuck because that’s really what it’s about.”
As the idea for a series centered around how the impact of innovation on people around the world took shape, Asylum Entertainment came on as a production partner in fall 2013. A subsequent meeting took place that November at Fox, which recently had success with the revival of “Cosmos” and with whom Imagine has had a longtime relationship. That in turn led to discussions with Fox co-owned NatGeo, then under the leadership of Howard Owens.
Plans were finalized the following spring, around the time former HBO exec Courteney Monroe was being promoted to NatGeo CEO.
“It’s a very unique partnership — they are not advertisers as would typically be the case in working with a brand,” Monroe says of GE, which split production funding with NatGeo. “They are not just financiers. They’re real co-production partners in the true sense of word, in terms of developing episodic themes, crafting stories.”
At times, Comstock notes, there were moments where it seemed like an “i” might be undotted or a “t” uncrossed, as far as what GE’s role would be.
“We always worked our way through them,” she says. “Creatively, I don’t think we had any disagreement. Ron and Brian are great at what they do.
“It’s easy to put things into categories, ‘branded content’ or whatever phrase you want to use. I think we should just be open to new models … where we both have skin in the game.”
For NatGeo’s part, “Breakthrough” dovetailed with a shift in strategy to become a destination for premium science, adventure and exploration programming.
“National Geographic is such an incredibly iconic and meaningful brand,” Monroe says. “My sense is that the channel hasn’t really lived through the promise of this brand.
“We’ve been much more focused in the recent past on more character-driven kind of reality, male-skewing programming. We’ve had some very successful shows like ‘Wicked Tuna’ that fit that mold. But we’re really focused on our new strategy now: fewer but more audacious, higher quality, bigger budget.”
NatGeo, Imagine, GE and Asylum all joined efforts as “Breakthrough” developed perhaps its signature element: having each of its six individual episodes directed by a different Hollywood luminary.
Angela Bassett (for the episode “Water Apocalypse”), Peter Berg (“Fighting Pandemics”), Paul Giamatti (“More Than Human”), Akiva Goldsman (“Energy From the Edge”) and Brett Ratner (“Decoding the Brain”) joined Howard (“The Age of Aging”) in signing on to take a turn behind the camera. They were all encouraged to put a personal stamp on the show, Howard says.
“The whole thing ran invisibly, which meant it was smooth,” Giamatti says. “When it came time to putting it together, it didn’t seem like five different entities were giving us notes. I think they pooled all their notes and sent them through NatGeo.”
“What was so encouraging was the number of directors who were interested,” Monroe says. “My hope is this is successful for us, and we can continue the series for years to come.”
With so many different avenues to explore, perhaps the biggest challenge in making “Breakthrough” was deciding what wouldn’t be in the initial six episodes. And because of the forward-looking nature of the show, it’s not as if the content were standing still.
“It’s science in real time,” Monroe says. “We’re covering scientific breakthroughs that are happening right now. Certainly, science is not waiting for us.”
Direct ties to GE’s scientists and the National Geographic Society alone could have supplied enough material to cover dozens of episodes. But none of the producers had any interest in making the series into a thinly disguised infomercial.
The companies’ expertise was more valuable in providing ideas and context.
“We’ve been living in this world,” Comstock says. “That’s why we exist. But we’re able to bring the perspective of ‘Is this a breakthrough or not?’ — whether it’s ours or someone else’s.”
As the series neared its premiere date, Comstock says her high expectations have been surpassed and GE’s role has been validated.
“I am amazed by it, but it also reaffirms the power of great storytelling to connect,” Comstock says. “I don’t think storytelling ever goes out of fashion, whether you’re a world-famous producer or director, or a company that’s constantly reinventing itself. It’s about the power to make a connection.”