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Listen: National Geographic Chief Gary Knell on Disney Future, Fox’s Legacy

The marriage of National Geographic Partners and Disney, which becomes official today, is the proverbial brand match made in heaven.

Disney is taking over the stewardship of Nat Geo Partners — a joint venture with the National Geographic Society — as part of its acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The transition comes at a time of rapid growth for Nat Geo across TV and digital platforms. Nat Geo will be one of five core brands showcased on the much-anticipated Disney Plus streaming platform expected to launch by year’s end.

“We are perfectly positioned to be part of that portfolio and connect with this curious tribe of people around the world, which is what National Geographic has been all about for about 130 years,” Nat Geo Partners chairman Gary Knell says in the latest episode of Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast.

Knell is energized by opportunities that will arise from being part of Disney’s kingdom, from the potential to reach consumes in the company’s theme parks to bolstering its collection of linear TV channels around the world. “Nobody manages brands better than they do,” Knell said of Disney.

Knell, who ran Sesame Workshop and NPR before joining Nat Geo in late 2013, also gives credit to 21st Century Fox for being “fantastic partners.” Fox teamed with Nat Geo in 1997 to launch TV channels that now reach 170 countries. The expansion into TV was vital for the brand that was previously known as a monthly print magazine.

“Without the cable investment that was made 20 years ago, there’s a good chance National Geographic wouldn’t be around today,” Knell said. Fox allowed Nat Geo to tap into a “creative culture” and provided the venture with “capital to invest in programming and really turn loose our creative assets,” he said. Knell emphasized “there wasn’t one instance of quote unquote editorial interference.”

Even being under the same corporate roof as Fox News had some advantages. “We were able to get a number of our explorers on (Fox News) to reach an audience that perhaps the traditional media hasn’t reached,” he said. “I viewed it as an opportunity. National Geographic is one of those non-partisan enterprises that has been able to be popular with the red and the blue states.”

Today, Nat Geo has renewed relevance with younger generations of consumers. Knell knew things were going well a few months ago when Instagram sent Nat Geo Partners a bouquet of balloons for surpassing 100 million followers. “We have 10 million Instagram followers in India alone,” Knell notes of the brand’s reach.

Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. A new episode debuts each Tuesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

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