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Nature around-the-clock

On the first Sunday of 2001, the National Geographic Society will parlay its 112-year-old namesake into a 24-hour cable network.

Rare is the Westerner who doesn't recognize the yellow-framed monthly digest or the familiar staccato blare of the National Geographic Fanfare. As a franchise, National Geographic is ubiquitous. Monthly readership of the flagship magazine is estimated at 29 million, and the international National Geographic Channel reaches more than 73 million homes worldwide. Over the past 35 years, its programs have won 105 Emmys and set PBS viewership records.

That's not to say the path to cable networkdom is obstacle-free and easy.

Sources familiar with National Geographic Channel estimate overall start-up costs at more than $300 million-about average for a new cable channel seeking wide distribution but a massive investment for National Geographic, whose revenues have remained fairly static at a little over $500 million a year. Once the network is established, the number of households tuning into the channel will rarely average more than 500,000, judging from recent ratings for its programming and the general cable-audience fragmentation. That's half a Nielsen rating point.

Then there's that pesky Discovery Channel, which has a firm hold on Nat Geo-like nature documentaries as the second-largest cable network in the country.

At the outset, National Geographic Channel will try to distinguish itself by originating from an 8,000-square-foot, in-house studio being carved in a street-level corner of National Geographic's Washington headquarters, just blocks from the White House. Laureen Ong, president of National Geographic Channel, hopes the studio will be NGC's "base camp" for interstitials and talk segments. Mainly, it will be home to National Geographic's most pronounced content departure in its history: a daily prime time news hour dubbed National Geographic Today.

With four widely distributed 24-hour cable-news channels, anchoring a start-up channel with a news show seems wildly impetuous. Nat Geo's own focus groups yawned over the prospect before they were pitched on the notion that it would concentrate on environmental issues, not just the carbon-copy headlines that populate most mainstream news.

Nat Geo's news chief Mark Nelson, a 17-year ABC News veteran, sees rich possibilities for National Geographic Today. "Think of the Firestone recall and how to dispose of 6.5 million tires. What's the environmental impact? This will be a 'state-of-the-planet' newscast."

And don't forget the exploits of National Geographic in-house explorers like Bob Ballard, who rediscovered the Titanic and the Yorktown, said Andrew Wilk, executive vice president of programming for the channel. "Historically, we would have given that news away," he said. "Now we don't have to."

New shows essentially categorize the Geographic genre (all of the following are working titles and all times are Eastern):

Living Wild will be the network's natural-history calling card, stripped weeknights at 8 p.m., following the 7 p.m. newscast.

The 9 p.m. slot will be filled with different fare each night. Mysterious World, featuring unexplained earthly phenomena, appears Monday and Saturday. Tuesday's On the Edge theme is high adventure, in the form of dangerous undertakings, like a rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. Treasure Seekers traverse the world for goodies on Wednesday, and famous endeavors and their instigators are the subjects of Profiles on Thursday. Friday is natural-disaster night with Extreme Planet.

Comparisons to Discovery's nature documentaries are inevitable, but those comprise only part of Discovery's schedule. Several crime-related series appear in prime time, and daytime is filled with home how-to advice. "We believe they are diluted," said Ong. "We will stay truer to exploratory documentary programming. They've left a lot of room for us."

Ask Discovery executives if they're concerned about a challenge from National Geographic, and they'll tell you it's not on the radar screen. "That's like saying Discovery Kids is competitive with Nickelodeon," said Discovery's Bill Goodwyn. "We think the competition will be between Civilization [a Discovery digital net] and Nat Geo. We don't look at them as a competitor to Discovery, especially from a distribution standpoint."

Discovery is in 79 million homes. National Geographic Channel will launch in 10 million, but thanks to its partnership with FOX, the channel already has commitments for 25 million homes within four years, from AT & T, Adelphia and DirecTV alone.

National Geographic gave FOX a 66% interest in the domestic channel, primarily to get the thing into homes, according to industry sources. FOX has not only the cash to cover substantial launch support but the negotiating leverage of retransmission consent and regional sports channels that cover some 72 million homes across the country. FOX has managed to launch four national networks in the past four years, copping hard-to-get analog carriage for each.

FOX is offering up to $5 a subscriber for operators who put National Geographic Channel in front of at least half their subscribers. But it will immediately start costing them 15 cents per month per subscriber, a license fee more in line with an established network like VH1 or E! In an environment where license fees are the biggest point of contention between programmers and cable operators, many new channels are being offered free for the first few years of service.

Nearly all the major cable operators that haven't chosen National Geographic say they will consider it but those fees! A top-five MSO executive lamented, "There's no question it's quality programming, but 15 cents would be high in any market. Their argument will be for higher rates based on brand recognition and local sales. My argument is that they don't have to spend the money on brand recognition, so it should be cheaper."