Nat Geo Turns to Storytelling

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National Geographic Channel plans to explore new territory in terms of its programming, with jazzier shows that focus on dramatic storytelling and with a push into new turf, namely science and technology.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of the brand, while remaining true to the roots,” said executive vice president of programming John Ford. “What we really want people to do is to say, ‘You know, I never thought I’d see that on National Geographic, but I’m glad that I did.’”

National Geographic, which held its upfront event here last week, has eight new shows set for the new season, with all but one of the hour programs slotted for primetime. Overall, the network is doubling its investment in video content, and more than doubling its hours of original programming, to over 300 new hours this coming year, according to Ford.

The roster of eight new shows, most of which are set to debut the week of Sept. 13, includes: Interpol, which reconstructs international crime scenes; Seconds from Disaster, which explains in detail, and then recreates, dramatic catastrophes like the Chernobyl explosion; Mayday!, which looks at high-profile air disasters; and Expeditions to the Edge, which traces the missteps of scientists and adventurers.

Some of the shows have a Fox-like tone. Fox Cable Networks Group and National Geographic Television own the service.

The network is tweaking its scheduling and changing the types of shows it’s doing in an effort to lift its ratings. NGC averaged a 0.2 primetime rating last year, flat compared with the prior year, and a 0.1 for total day, also even, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. “Our primetime needs to be more like Velcro and less like Teflon,” said Ford, a Discovery Networks U.S. alum who joined the channel last summer. “People need to stick. The overall strategy is to get more people watching and to get them watching for a longer amount of time.”

In terms of getting viewers to increase their viewing time, NGC is focusing on shows that spin a good yarn.

“The common thing is stickiness through storytelling,” Ford said. “What we need to do is to do shows where we have guaranteed payoff of story.

“That means rather than sending somebody out on an expedition to see if something happens, let’s revisit an expedition where we already know something happened and tell that story again.”

NGC also hopes to buttress primetime viewer duration not only through hour-long series, versus half-hours in the past, but via a vertical game plan.

“The strategy is to program vertically rather than horizontally, because we don’t have a strong strip series to do in primetime,” Ford said. “So we’ll build nights, and start with primetime.”

In terms of content, National Geographic is also expanding its subject base.

“We’re selecting series topics from a broader array of genres than we did before, so more science, more technology, versus nature and culture,” he said.

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