Nat Geo Succeeds With ‘Smartainment’

National Geographic Channel is coming off a record-breaking ratings year in 2013, based on the success of its original, nonfiction series such as Brain Games and Wicked Tuna, as well as big-ticket specials such as its original movie Killing Kennedy. Nat Geo president Howard Owens recently talked to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s ratings success as well as its adherence to the Nat Geo brand and its plans for the upcoming upfront season.

MCN: How do you assess National Geographic Channel going into the upfront season?

Howard Owens: The channel has morphed substantially over the past two years, when the channel only had one returning series at the end of 2011, and that was Alaska State Troopers. Now we have 10 returning series — obviously all with different entry points — but it really speaks to National Geographic Channel being a place for upscale, aspirational and smart, fearless programing. That’s the audience that we’re trying to attract.

We think there’s an opportunity in this market, and one we’re taking advantage of. We have shows like Life Below Zero, Brain Games, Wicked Tuna and Survival Alaska that are real franchises for us, and they speak to our new channel DNA.

MCN: There have been some questions raised about whether the network’s new programming strategy represented a move away from the traditional National Geographic brand. Do you believe the success you’ve had over the past two years has silenced those critics?

HO: I think that we have done the opposite of moving away from the National Geographic brand. I think we have embraced with all of our creative energy the soul of the National Geographic brand and turned it into a contemporary television brand.

I like to say that National Geographic tries to bring out the inner explorer in everyone. If you look at shows like Brain Games, which focuses on learning more about our brains and neurology in an entertaining and enlightening way, or Life Below Zero, which is a subculture about extreme isolationists who are self-sufficient and self-reliant, and is one of the great unscripted series on TV today. These are shows that are embracing core National Geographic core values of exploration, endurance and mind over matter. We don’t do shows about the lowest common denominator or that talk down to our audience. We want to elevate the conversation with the television programming that we’re a part of.

MCN: Will the network look to make inroads in the digital space?

HO: The digital work around Killing Kennedy was award-winning and genre-provoking. The average time spent for people who went to the site was 50 minutes, so it was really something to be proud of and something we’re leaning into more. The interactive app that we have around Brain Games is very sticky and helps satisfy our audience in between episodes of the show, and we’re having fun with it.

We’re learning more about the digital content space and really trying to use that to keep our audiences more engaged in our shows and to allow an opportunity for advertisers to have a more intimate relationship with our audiences.

MCN: How big of a role will the network’s “smartainment” brand of original programming play in the network’s upfront pitch?

HO: We will continue with what we call “smartainment” and capitalizing on Brain Games and Cosmos. We are really enthused that the category took off on National Geographic Channel because it affirms that people want more engaging, highly entertaining but smart, aspirational content that’s not afraid to be fun and fearless. That’s what the success of Brain Games taught us, so we’re looking to expand that in unique and different ways. Coming up, we have Crowd Control, which a show that forces people to consider why they make the decisions they do within a crowded situation.

We also have You Can’t Lick Your Elbow, in where we teach the audience how to see in the dark and how to clear your nasal passages with a touch of a finger. It’s a fun, interactive show similar to Brain Games that really shows the magic and the hidden secrets of the human body.

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.