Nat Geo Celebrating Earth Day in Wake of COVID-19 Pandemic

National Geographic today (April 22) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a day-long lineup of programming, culminating with two primetime specials: Born Wild: The Next Generation and Jane Goodall: The Hope. Both specials will be simulcast on National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild, as well as streamed on Disney+ and Hulu.

I spoke to National Geographic executive vice president of global unscripted entertainment Geoff Daniels about the network’s Earth Day programming as well as Nat Geo’s future programming and production plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced a halt to the production of most TV programming. An edited version appears below.

How much of an effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on National Geographic’s recognition of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary?

Obviously this is like no other anniversary or birthday in history. Frankly we’re blazing forward pretty much as planned. Earth Day is representative of everything that National Geographic has stood for with regard to the environment and conservation for over 130 years, as well as what Disney has done over the years to further conservation. This was really Disney/National Geographic’s first cross platform synergy event, and in spite of all the challenges we faced, we could still come together in a really massive and hopeful way. We both realize that it’s never been more important to celebrate the planet and think about the importance of a healthy and balanced environment for not only the animals but the interconnectedness that we all have, which frankly this pandemic has highlighted. To deliver messages of inspiration and hope and individual action makes a difference, and through the programming that we’re creating and airing all day long on Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo we hope we’re giving audiences something that is warm and cheerful.

How were you able to reconfigure Born Wild from a live special to what will air on Earth Day?

It’s no secret that Born Wild: The Next Generation was going to be a big, live event. It’s still being hosted by Robin Roberts, and ABC News’ top talent will be involved in the special [along with a special appearance by actor Chris Hemsworth], but we were going to have live feeds from Australia, Africa and California. It was really going to be an extensive live event. When we all saw the crisis coming we got out ahead of that, and frankly in abundance of caution we all recognized that we had to pivot from what we were hoping to do live and think about it differently, but equally impactful and entertaining. What we were able to do is move to feature and highlight more of our amazing explorers and researchers that are doing great work. The show revolves more specifically around our explorers, the animals and the incredible work that’s being done out in the field all over the world. We all feel that this special couldn’t be more relevant, timely and important given what is going on in the world to celebrate what an amazing planet we have and the incredible work people are doing on its behalf.

What other specials will Nat Geo feature as part of its Earth Day programming?

Jane Goodall: The Hope really picks up where the feature doc [Jane] leaves off. It follows Jane around the world with unique access to her life as she advocates for not only her chimps at [Africa's Gombe Stream National Park] but all animal life around the planet. It also celebrates the unique individuals that are carrying on her legacy for future generations to become more passionate participants in taking care of the planet [the special also includes an appearance from Prince Harry]. All of that combined is going to be a very powerful and culturally impactful set of programs for an audience that I think right now have all been sent to their rooms by a pandemic.

Speaking of the pandemic, how has your job been changed by the COVID-19 crisis with regard to developing programming for Nat Geo?

People talk about this as a slowdown in production -- and we don’t have a crystal ball to predict what’s going to happen down the road -- but what we do know is that our audiences around the world expect National Geographic to be able to deliver the kind of premium, inspired, outward-facing programming that we’ve been known for for generations. We still have a ton of programming that we were able to produce before we had to suspend field production that is continuing to move through post-production where people are editing remotely. We’re coming up with all sorts of innovative solutions for how we can operate in really safe and responsible ways. In the coming months you can continue to expect to see a pretty steady stream of shows like Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted and a number of other programs like the Earth Day specials that continue to inspire, entertain and inform viewers. We want to motivate our audiences to ride out this [pandemic] in the comfort of their own homes while experiencing the world through our lenses. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.