LOWDOWN ON THE UPFRONT: Nat Geo Unearths Slate - Multichannel

LOWDOWN ON THE UPFRONT: Nat Geo Unearths Slate

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Hoping to continue its double-digit upfront growth, National Geographic Channel is ramping up its original programming, with four new series and two miniseries slated for the new season so far, as well as a host of marquee specials.

The network, which has enjoyed ratings growth for the past five years, has scheduled about 300 meetings with advertisers and ad agencies across the country to make its upfront pitch, according to Rich Goldfarb, senior vice president of media sales.

Then in late April, the network will host an upfront event for advertisers and their families at Chelsea Pier 60 in Manhattan.

The programming service, which is owned by National Geographic Ventures and Fox Cable Networks, is promoting a 2008-2009 upfront season slate that features a handful of new series.

They are:

*Locked In, in which Nat Geo spent a year “embedded” in Georgia’s Hays State Prison, home to some of the nation’s most hard-core convicts;

*Master of Disaster, where Tim Samaras, a consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security, tests technology at the site of nature and manmade catastrophes;

*Who Knew? With Marshall Brain, a show where engineer Brain demonstrates how everyday items work; and

*The Big Fix, a series where host Sean Riley shows viewers the ingenuity required to execute oversized repair jobs, unclogging Paris’s sewers.

 Nat Geo also has a pair of three-installment miniseries on its upfront slate, namely On Board Air Force One and Secret Service Files, in which the network will follow the agents during the 2008 Presidential election and document the transition between presidential administrations.

The network’s lineup of specials includes: Baby Mammoth Autopsy, which documents the study of a 37,000-year-old perfectly preserved frozen mammoth that was found in Siberia by a reindeer herder; Blue Whale Mystery ,where 16 of the world’s largest animals are tagged and tracked to uncover where they birth their young; Herod’s Lost Tomb, where after a 30-year search National Geographic archeologist Ehud Netzer discovers the tomb of one of the Bible’s most famous villains; and Cave of the Giant Crystals, a trip into a Mexican cave that contains rock crystals that are 45-feet long.

All in all, NGC has about two dozen specials working, with the network’s lineup expanding from four series to 12 from the old season to the new one, officials said.

On the linear-content side, the network enjoys a unique advantage – and access -- via its relationship to the National Geographic Society, which actually funds explorers and expeditions, according to Steve Burns, the network’s executive vice president of content.

“Because of the National Geographic brand, viewers come to us first and the world’s best producers come to us first, as do a lot of the best science out there, the best expeditions come to be aligned with the National Geographic brand,” Burns said.

NGC has been on a roll in terms of its ad sales growth and performance during recent upfronts, according to Steve Schiffman, who was just named the network’s permanent general manager and executive vice president.

The network last year averaged a 0.4 household rating in primetime, flat versus 2006, but its total viewership grew 20%, to 381,000, according to a Disney-ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

It enjoyed revenue growth of 43% in last year’s upfront versus the prior year, signing on more than two dozen new advertisers.

“Obviously, the cable marketplace doesn’t have anywhere near that type of growth,” Goldfarb said. “So by geometric multiples, we are outperforming the cable marketplace. And from a year ago, we’ve more than doubled our digital revenue, that being from VOD and broadband. And we’re sold out on VOD.”

Goldfarb and Schiffman are predicting that overall cable will see a strong upfront.

In fourth quarter 2007, NGC registered its highest-revenue quarter in the network’s history, up 30% from the prior-year quarter. In January this year alone, revenue for its traditional advertising, 30-second and 60-second spots, is already up 40% over the same period last year, according to Goldfarb.

NGC can offer advertisers a soup-to-nuts opportunity to have placement in all-encompassing multi-media platforms – the linear channel, video on demand, broadband, podcasts, web sites and wireless, according to Schiffman.

The network is now in 67 million homes, with its VOD service now available to 25 million subscribers, with that number expected go increase to 42 million by December next year. Its HDTV service is in 13 million homes.