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Upfronts 2009: NatGeo Unveils 10 New Series

Amazon headshrinkers, monster sharks, a prehistoric crocodile and Nero's Rome - these are just some of the topics on tap for exploration at National Geographic Channel for the 2009-10 season.

The network unveiled 10 new series ahead of the upfront selling season. With 11 returning series, that brings the original series total to 21, the most in the 8-year-old network's history. And if you think Amazon headshrinkers only exist in the movies, think again, because the same researchers that fact-check every article in National Geographic magazine also vet every frame of NatGeo's programming.

Network executives say it is this brand equity as a leading provider of rigorously researched scientific and historical programming that has enabled NatGeo to grow its business in tough economic times.

Other new series include: Break Out , about hair-raising jailbreaks; Fight Science, which uses CGI animation to deconstruct fight styles; The Sean Riley Project, which has the World's Toughest Fixes host tackling oversized repair jobs; and Rescue Ink, about tattooed, motorcycle-riding tough guys who rescue unwanted dogs and cats. They join NatGeo's roster of returning shows including the top-rated Explorer franchise and Dog Whisperer.

The network, a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures and Fox Cable Networks, had its best month ever in January buoyed by the primetime special On Board Air Force One, which aired days after the inauguration of Barack Obama and included video of the president in his new home in the sky. The special was the highest rated primetime program of the night among all ad-supported cable networks in households and the network's target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds.

After six consecutive years of ratings growth in households and the 25-54 sales demographic, NatGeo executives believe they're well-positioned to offer buyers efficiencies (versus broadcast) at a time when many companies' marketing budgets have been downsized by the recession.

"Increasingly, at a time when CEOs and CFOs are looking for ROI [return on investment] and more bang for the buck, to come to a channel like ours and to have an association with a show like Explorer or Dog Whisperer is very, very appealing," says Rich Goldfarb, senior VP of ad sales.

But the network has not been immune to market forces. With many male skewing shows that have attracted automotive sponsors, the network saw a cancellation rate of 10% in the first quarter of this year, which Goldfarb described as "a little above normal but not catastrophic." And while first quarter scatter sales for January and February were down, the network has seen a flurry of activity for March and is virtually sold out, according to Goldfarb, indicating that after hunkering down in the first two months of the quarter, marketers had cash to spend in the third.

Goldfarb conceded that automotive and financials, two of their leading sectors, were down, but he was still projecting a 5-10% increase for fiscal year ending June 30 based on strong ratings growth for the network and an integrated marketing approach that has already paid off.

That strategy of packaging the cable network with National Geographic's digital assets as well as National Geographic magazine has insulated the channel from cancellations, says Steve Schiffman, general manager, National Geographic Channel.

One of NatGeo's most successful partnerships has been with pet store chain Petco, a presenting sponsor on Dog Whisperer and the exclusive retailer of series star Cesar Millan's line of pet products.

"It's literally an extension of the equity that has a very tangible result," says Shiffman.

More recently, the network built an integrated marketing partnership with insurance giant Geico featuring its mascot the gecko with a British accent. Geico, which is a corporate sponsor of the non-profit Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is a presenting sponsor of NatGeo's Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr and Wild. The deal includes 30-second vignettes for the Website that feature Barr and include humans attempting to simulate the movements of a gecko. The third component is a Geico branded insert in the March issue of National Geographic magazine that includes a map of national zoos.

Such integrated marketing "really protects the channel from even having to think about a cancellation," says Shiffman. "It's a win-win."