With ‘Genius,’ National Geographic Channel Makes Big Play for Cable Primacy

COURTENEY MONROE National Geographic Channel
Stephen Voss for Variety

When Courteney Monroe joined National Geographic channel in 2012, the brand was in identity crisis.

National Geographic magazine — the yellow-bordered, perfect-bound monthly, famed for its prize-winning photographs and school-library ubiquity — was as serious-minded and mission-focused as ever. But its sibling U.S. cable network had gone rogue. A joint venture overseen by 21st Century Fox, the channel boasted a lineup of reality shows such as “Doomsday Preppers,” about people readying for the end of days, and “Rocket City Rednecks,” starring a group of Alabama DIY enthusiasts whose projects included a self-targeting anti-watermelon defense system.

Monroe was hired as the network’s chief marketing officer after spending 13 years at HBO. The product she was tasked with promoting was, by her own account, substandard.

“The content strategy that we were pursuing was discordant with the National Geographic brand,” Monroe says. “We were very focused on chasing the audiences of Discovery and History and other factual-entertainment channels in a volume game — a lot of lower-cost, male-skewing reality shows.” That pursuit led to “lots of survival shows, lots of shows in Alaska,” according to Monroe.

The ad campaign for “Genius” won raves
Courtesy of Nat Geo

“I felt that was really not what people come to National Geographic for. It’s not what people expect of us.”

Five years later, Monroe is in a position to do something about that. Now CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, she’s overseeing a pivotal transition for the brand. On April 25, the erstwhile “Rocket City Rednecks” network will launch “Genius,” a dramatic miniseries about the life of Albert Einstein, starring Geoffrey Rush and executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

“Genius” is National Geographic’s first fully scripted program and a critical component of Fox’s multimillion-dollar renovation of the channel. The goal is to transform a brand once led by Alexander Graham Bell into a major 21st-century media player. At the center of that effort is a suite of channels Monroe — who replaced former boss David Lyle as National Geographic’s U.S. television chief in 2014 and was promoted again the following year — is attempting to rebuild at a time of peak-cable competition.

The transformation began in 2015, when Fox cut a deal with the National Geographic Society to take over its consumer-facing businesses. The conglomerate already had been running National Geographic Channel and its offshoots — much to the consternation of many in the society, a nearly 130-year-old nonprofit that funds scientific expeditions and educational initiatives. Society leaders saw the channels as increasingly divergent from their core mission.

In 2013, Gary E. Knell, formerly of Sesame Workshop and NPR, was hired as the society’s CEO. He voiced to Fox the growing displeasure with the channels’ creative path. He found a receptive audience.

Fox was questioning its National Geographic strategy. Cable groups across the landscape had begun in recent years to look hard at their portfolios and realize that digital-driven changes in viewership and distribution were making the world less safe for marginal channels. National Geographic was little more than a thing to watch if you didn’t like what was on Discovery at a given moment. That made it a marginal channel.

“We have to be exceptional, and we have to be worth paying for,” Monroe says. “And the strategy we were pursuing — we were just becoming disposable.”

Conversations among Knell, Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice and 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch evolved quickly beyond mere programming changes. In 2015, Fox and the society formed National Geographic Partners, a for-profit company to house the brand’s television channels, magazine, digital media and other businesses such as book publishing and travel.

Ownership is split 73%-27%, favoring Fox. The society got the National Geographic trademark and a governance structure that allows it to pump the brakes should Fox steer its namesakes into unseemly territory.

It also got $725 million and 27% of all future net revenue from the joint venture. Today the society sits atop a $1.2 billion endowment. It has effectively moved out of the nonprofit journalism business and become the beneficiary of a complex for-profit partnership run by one of the world’s largest media companies.

“Now we have a war chest to invest in scientists and explorers,” Knell says.

It was not lost on National Geographic’s fans that any deal with Fox is a deal with Rupert Murdoch — political conservative, tabloid journalism connoisseur and climate-change skeptic. Of the many, many mock National Geographic covers that circulated online and satirized the deal in the days following its announcement, one bore Murdoch’s face and the cover line “How Rising Seas Are Giving Whales More Room to Swim.” Another declared bluntly, “The World Is Flat.”

Knell says Fox executives made clear during negotiations that they understood how the deal would be perceived. But he contends the corporation has been a good steward of National Geographic’s iconic yellow rectangle — and he sees little reason to think that will change.

“If you look at this from a raw business perspective, for Fox or someone else to dumb down the brand would kill the business,” Knell says. “There’s no financial incentive for them to do that.”

“If you look at this from a raw business perspective, for Fox or someone else to dumb down the brand would kill the business.”

Even before the partnership formed, Fox was attempting to pump credibility into the National Geographic channels. Monroe was promoted to CEO on the strength of her HBO run and the fresh thinking she brought to National Geographic. In January 2015, she was boarding a flight after leaving CES in Las Vegas when Rice called.

“ ‘I want you to think about something on the plane,’ ” she remembers him telling her. “ ‘What if we just blew up the model? What if we thought really radically and differently about what National Geographic could be? Use your experience at HBO. What’s the HBO version of National Geographic?’ ”

National Geographic had been a step down for Monroe — one she chose to take. By the end of her HBO tenure, she had risen to head of marketing. But she had spent the last year of that tenure commuting to New York from her native Washington D.C., where her husband had a new job and her mother was living with an illness. Monroe quit in 2011, planning to look the following year for a D.C. gig. She had little optimism about her chances of staying in television. She was preparing to adapt.

Then she found out about the National Geographic marketing job, which was based in D.C.

“I never would have left HBO to take the National Geographic Channel marketing job, but I was just so thrilled to have a job in Washington that would allow me to stay in television and media,” she says. “I made this decision for purely personal reasons, which was right for me and my family, but it turned out to be the best professional decision I ever made.”

As Fox began to eye a new direction for National Geographic on the heels of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s commercially successful 2014 science documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Monroe emerged as an obvious choice to carve out that path.

National Geographic had been spending about $300 million a year to make 600 hours of television. Its new strategy, devised by Monroe, would invert that formula, earmarking $400 million to make 150 hours. The idea was to realign the network’s identity with a smaller batch of premium programming and fill the scheduling gaps with library shows, of which National Geographic had plenty.

It was a bet on quality over quantity — and a recognition that as digital and on-demand viewing have become the norms, a cable channel might be more valuable as a first-run platform for content with a long monetization lifespan than as a linear conduit for a steady flow of programs that won’t age well.

“As television moves more and more to an on-demand world and consumers are faced with infinite choices, linear television is still important as a launchpad for new shows,” Rice says. “But the shows should have real longevity and a long tail. You don’t have to program 24 hours a day with original content.”

Such thinking has led National Geographic back toward more ambitious natural-history programming. In the documentary pipeline are “One Strange Rock,” a Darren Aronofsky-produced series that will spend more than 100 weeks shooting; and coal-mining film “From the Ashes,” which the network acquired this month ahead of its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

The riskiest piece of the revitalization plan is a move into scripted series, a party to which National Geographic is late. Nearly every channel with ties to a major cable group has ramped up scripted development. The very networks whose reality strategies National Geographic had mimicked — Discovery and History — made the move into scripted years ago. Others, such as MTV and WGN America, found the field too crowded to succeed and abandoned their scripted ambitions.

But National Geographic has a few things going for it. One is its link to Fox’s television-studio operations, arguably Hollywood’s largest and most successful. Another is Rice, a heavy hitter who went to bat for the network to establish it within the creative community as a legitimate buyer.

“There are a lot of places that people are going to for original scripted content, a lot of them in the over-the-top space like Netflix and Amazon,” says Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman. “We’re not just talking about competing in the cable sphere — it’s competing in every sphere.”

Also important is apparent eagerness on the part of top talent to work with the network: Agents who have met with Monroe and National Geographic scripted-development head Carolyn Bernstein speak highly of both. But agents like anyone with money to spend. More telling is the network’s ever-expanding partnership with Howard and Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. Imagine produced “Breakthrough,” a documentary series that premiered on National Geographic in 2015 and whose second season premieres in May, as well as “Mars,” a scripted-documentary hybrid that debuted last year. Both shows drew solid, though not exceptional, ratings and critical response.

But their most ambitious collaboration yet is “Genius,” envisioned as an anthology that will change its subject every season. The premiere episode, along with a midseason hour during the first year of “Breakthrough,” represent Howard’s first television directorial work since the 1980s.

“It’s one of those things where Nat Geo’s mandate to enter premium scripted television fit perfectly with this story that we were excited to tell and that I wanted to direct,” Howard says
of “Genius.”

Howard has been particularly impressed with the show’s marketing. An ad featuring Rush, in character as Einstein and playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on the violin, won a Clio in February for best Super Bowl spot.

Bert Salke, president of Fox 21 Television Studios, which produced “Genius,” raves about the National Geographic team. “The notion that Courteney is new to the broadcast-running game is shocking given how phenomenal this experience has been,” he says.

From 2015-17, National Geographic was one of the only cable channels to increase subscribers — up a slight 3.7% to 89.4 million, according to Nielsen. Still, that’s nothing to pop champagne over. Distributors are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the network’s turnaround because much of its new programming has yet to premiere.

In upcoming negotiations, cable distributors, emboldened by the increasing number of digitally distributed “skinny” bundles such as DirecTV Now and Dish Network’s Sling TV, will demand greater flexibility in the way they carry and how they package channels. For non-essential channels, that almost certainly will mean big subscriber declines, which could lead to termination.

Fox is pouring money and resources into National Geographic in the hope the network can become essential. In a go-big-or-go-home proposition, go big won out.

“There’s no question that this is a bold, audacious strategy, and it’s not without risk,” Monroe says. “But the risk of not pursuing that for our business, in my estimation, was far greater than the risk of pursuing it.”