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Hoping Hollywood Takes Notice as ‘Genius’ Shows Scripted Smarts

National Geographic Channel is known mostly for marquee Unscripted and documentary programming, but last month the TV Academy recognized the network for excellence in the field of scripted series by bestowing 10 Emmy Award nominations on its first original series, Genius, the biography starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein. (The anthology series’ next iteration will be about painter Pablo Picasso.) National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe spoke to B&C contributor R. Thomas Umstead about the impact of Genius’s Emmy nominations on Nat Geo’s brand as well as plans to develop more scripted content. An edited transcript follows.

Is the Nat Geo brand shifting away from what was once a mostly documentary-focused programming strategy to one that is looking to compete with general entertainment networks on the scripted programming field?

I would certainly hope so. The lion’s share of our original programming will continue to be nonfiction and documentary; that is the core of who we are. But there’s no question that scripted is an important part of our strategy and shift to a more premium destination. We feel more emboldened by the performance of Genius, our first-ever scripted series, which performed exceedingly well for us all around the world and garnered 10 Emmy nominations. The idea that our first ever scripted series is nominated with the likes of HBO and FX is somewhat staggering, but also incredibly gratifying, and signals to me that there is room for us to play on that level. As long as we can get the very best creative talent in the world to choose to bring their stories to us, I think we have a shot at competing with everybody.

How important is Genius’s 10 Emmy nominations for the Nat Geo brand?

It’s important for a few reasons and it’s not just to make us feel good that our work is being recognized, although that is very nice. It significantly raises our profile in the industry, both among our key revenue-driving partners — advertisers and affiliates. It raises our profile among consumers, but it also raises our profile among the Hollywood community, and it signals to them that they can bring great projects to National Geographic and still get industry recognition. In turn, that begets more great projects because they will be more willing to bring their best ideas to us. That then creates greater viewership from viewers and more attention from the industry. So [Emmy nominations] matter, particularly for us as we seek to transform and reposition ourselves as a network known for really high quality, premium content.

How does Genius’s success affect the production of future Nat Geo scripted series?

We’re being very thoughtful and methodical about the stories that we choose to tell on the scripted side; we will only tell stories that are either entirely fact-based or fact inspired. You’re not going to see Game of Thrones on Nat Geo — there won’t be any dragons because they are not real. We’re only going to tell stories that feel organic to our brand and feel like they explore stories that are right for Nat Geo to tell. So shows like our Leonardo DiCaprio-produced story based on The Right Stuff — it’s about adventure and exploration and trailblazing innovators during the space years — that are ripe for reimagination are the core of the Nat Geo brand, as is profiling geniuses like Albert Einstein or Pablo Picasso in our next season [of Genius]. We’re going to pick stories that feel exciting and captivating as dramas, but make sense for us to tell those stories.

Overall, what is the biggest challenge that networks face in today’s entertainment environment?

The biggest challenge continues to be the extent of competition. The peak level of competition is staggering — I can’t even keep track of all the shows that I want to watch — and yet here we are seeking to transform this network into something that is new and exciting and elevated from what it’s been. It’s challenging just to break through that clutter and become part of the zeitgeist to get programming to be noticed, which is why we’re so thrilled with our Emmy nominations and the attention we’re receiving because we were actually able to make some noise and break through. But there’s so much great content available — it’s been that way for some time and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. The biggest fear is that you can create terrific, creatively excellent content that matters and still nobody may find it through the sea of great content that’s out there. That’s the biggest challenge.


■ Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role
■ Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie – Geoffrey Rush
■ Outstanding Period/Fantasy Costumes for a Series, Limited Series or Movie
■ Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special
■ Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie
■ Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie
■ Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music
■ Outstanding Limited Series
■ Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series, Movie or Special
■ Outstanding Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie

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.