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Heeding Nature’s New Call

2/27/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

National Geographic Channel says its efforts to invigorate and modernize classic — but often-predictable — nature programming are paying off.

The network, which plans to unveil several new series at its upfront next month, has seen steady ratings growth during the past several quarters in its core demographic of adults 25 to 54. It has also racked up its best January ever for that age group while attracting a younger audience, according to John Ford, executive vice president of programming.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum right now, and a lot in the pipeline,” said Ford, noting that the service has just renewed several series for a second season, including MegaStructures. It’s also reaping better ratings from National Geographic Explorer than MSNBC did since the venerable series moved to Nat Geo on Jan. 9.

During the season to date, Nat Geo is up 90% in primetime among adults 25 to 54, to a 0.19 rating.

FILLING A VOID

The network maintains that by sticking to its non-fiction knitting — but turbocharging its programs with computer-generated imaging and more compelling yarn-spinning — it’s filling the void being created by rivals who’ve veered off into reality shows.

Discovery Channel, for example, now has a string of male-skewing shows such as Monster Garage, while its sister service TLC is suffering due to an overreliance on home-improvement programs.

“There’s something of a hole in the marketplace for us right now,” said Ford. “The viewers of the types of programs that we are doing have been abandoned by some other networks who used to program to them. So viewers have been looking for really quality science, really entertaining natural history or history, and they’re finding it where we are now.

“Part of it’s the appeal of the programming, and part is others having created a hole by sort of the abdication of the territory.”

Officials at Discovery Networks U.S., parent of Discovery Channel and TLC, denied that they’ve created any “void.”

“I’m not quite sure what they’re talking about, about our genre,” said Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell. “I don’t focus on them. I don’t really care what they’re doing. I look at what we’re doing.”

Discovery Communications Inc. spokesman David Leavy maintained that nature programming has been and remains “part of our DNA,” and that the company is the No. 1 producer of such fare.

Last year, Nat Geo’s primetime household ratings rose 50%, to a 0.3, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Despite a 10% drop, Discovery averaged a 0.9 household rating in primetime in 2004, three times that of Nat Geo.

Nat Geo officials said they’ve doubled their programming outlays from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2005, and that investment has grown viewership. Juicing up the fare is also part of the strategy.

“The channel, our zeitgeist, is about the explorer in all of us, and we take that broadly,” said Ford, a former Discovery executive. “What’s working for us is shows, series, and specials that have very high information content, very strong visuals, good storytelling values and a significant use of CGI to help illustrate the stories.”

That’s what Ford calls “part of the contemporization of the brand, and also part of what a modern network needs to do in non-fiction in order to compete with the CSIs of the world because, particularly male viewers — and we’re probably 60-40 male in primetime in our target demographics — are looking for that eye candy.”

Ford is also looking for new takes on familiar stories. For example, the special Predators at War used military metaphors to explain the advantage one animal holds over others.

“We’re bringing in a younger audience to experience natural history and enjoy it, because we’re using modern advanced production techniques to tell a story that resonates with them the way they view other television, and the way they view films,” Ford said.

DISCOVERY’S DUAL STRATEGY

But with Nat Geo doing non-nature fare like Fantastic Frat Fridge, the network’s assessment of Discovery Channel’s male-skewing shows rings “a tad hollow,” Leavy said.

Discovery’s two-pronged programming strategy is working, according to Campbell: the service is up against its target demographics and has lowered its median age.

The network’s specials are “signature, tent pole and what a Discovery audience has always expected,” Campbell said, citing Pompeii: The Last Day, which attracted 4.2 million viewers with its premiere and encore that same night.

“We’ve upped the ante there because we’re doing more and better specials,” said Campbell, who is also upbeat about Discovery’s series.

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