Think of National Geographic, and images of lions roaming the plains or astronomers gazing upwards toward a magnificent cluster of stars immediately come to mind.
So, when the network recently aired original scripted shows featuring the lives of a complicated scientist and an immensely talented artist, it turned some heads within the television industry.
But that is the genius of Courteney Monroe, global CEO of National Geographic Global Networks. Since taking the reins at the National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Wild in 2015, Monroe has expanded the storied brand by adding quality, scripted content to the company’s already highly regarded nonfiction science, exploration and natural history programming.
The industry has acknowledged the change: Nat Geo’s two scripted projects under the Genius umbrella — Einstein and Picasso — won two Emmy awards and picked up 14 nominations over the past two years.
Already a Long Resume
Indeed, what Monroe has accomplished in the television arena at the tender age of 49 is more than what many TV executives accomplish in a lifetime. “I feel like I’m too young for this [Hall of Fame] honor,” she said.
Industry executives have a different opinion. “Courteney is that unique combination of talent, heart and grace that comes along very rarely,” HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler said. “No one in our industry is more deserving of this honor.”
What Monroe has accomplished in her 20 years as a TV executive is somewhat different from her initial aspirations of being a broadcast journalist. “I wanted to anchor the Today show,” she said. “It was a dream of mine since I was in middle school.”
Monroe would eventually find her TV-industry niche on the marketing front. After receiving her MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, she would take a marketing position at American Express before landing at HBO and becoming the premium programmer’s executive VP of consumer marketing and digital platforms.
Monroe received an early indoctrination into the value of branding with her first project at HBO. She was tasked with reading a script for a new drama series — about New Jersey mobsters and their relatives — and coming up with an alternative title for what was hoped would become the network’s signature show.
“At the time we presented different names we thought The Sopranos should be called to David Chase, because the concern was that people weren’t going to know what the show’s about — they may think it’s about opera singers and no one’s going to watch it,” Monroe said. “Of course, David Chase thought that was a really bad idea, and the rest is history.”
Monroe would go on to work on such marquee HBO shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Game of Thrones and Six Feet Under before moving to National Geographic Channels as chief marketing officer in 2012.
Her big break at Nat Geo came when she was chosen to serve as National Geographic Channels CEO in 2014, after the departure of former CEO David Lyle. A year later, she would be named National Geographic Global Networks CEO.
Finding Nat Geo’s New Niche
Monroe immediately evaluated Nat Geo’s programming and decided there was room to expand into the entertainment sphere without diluting or hurting the strength of the brand.
“I certainly felt that the programming strategy that we had been pursuing while I was head of marketing was not right for us, and that we were really chasing the audiences of Discovery and History at the time,” she said. “Coming from HBO and being a brand person at heart, I thought we should be pursuing something that lived up to people’s expectations of National Geographic, but also dusted it off.”
Monroe would soon team with producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard for the 2015 docuseries Breakthrough, about scientists and their innovations and advancements that have changed human life.
Monroe, Grazer and Howard then reached for the stars with 2016’s Mars, a hybrid scripted and documentary series, dramatizing the quest to colonize the Red Planet.
But it was anthology series Genius that put Monroe and National Geographic in the same conversation with entertainment titans like HBO, FX and Netflix with respect to creating quality, award-winning scripted content.
Genius: Picasso in particular helped National Geographic finish as ad-supported cable’s second most Emmy-nominated network in 2018, behind FX which, like Nat Geo, is part of the Fox family of networks.
“We’re making big-budget, more creatively ambitious shows that really push the creative boundaries in a way that National Geographic has never done before,” Monroe said. “We’re not done.
“I sort of feel like we’re just starting, but it’s been very gratifying to be able to lead the team with a vision that I passionately believe in and that I think is right not only for this brand but also for the marketplace given how competitive it is,” she added. “I’m very pleased with the progress and what we’ve accomplished since we launched [scripted programming] two years ago.”
Monroe has expanded the breadth of National Geographic’s lineup while staying true to the core of its brand, refreshing such classic documentary series as Cosmos and Explorer.
“Courteney has done so much to bring back the glory of the august and illustrious National Geographic brand, and to make it as meaningful as it has been in its greatest days,” Ann Druyan, creator and producer of the network’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, said in January during the TCA Winter Tour in Pasadena, Calif.
Said HBO’s Plepler: “All of us at HBO have watched with great pride as she has led Nat Geo to new heights.”