At NatGeo, the Brand Is the Bond

Network honors the magazine but makes TV version edgier

It’s all about protecting that frame. Most Americans grew up reading the National Geographic magazine, its cover bordered in yellow.

Now that trademark is the on-screen logo of the National Geographic Channel, which faces the challenge of growing its audience without compromising the iconic tradition of the magazine.

But NatGeo is also in the television business, and it has some media-inspired goals as well. “We are getting larger and getting younger, and we are also getting more upscale,” says John Ford, executive VP, programming. And they’re about to launch a high-definition channel, NatGeo HD. (See box.)

National Geographic will still take you to the far corners of the globe, from the deepest canyons of the sea to the highest mountains—and even into space. (But in at least one way, this is not the National Geographic you remember. For one thing, what Ford gently refers to as “tribal nudity” is digitally obscured on TV.)

The channel is a joint venture of the Fox Network Group, which owns two-thirds, and National Geographic Ventures, the taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, which owns one-third. Fox handles affiliate relations, advertising and uplinks. Editorial control, however, resides firmly with National Geographic Ventures.

“That’s for brand protection. That’s obviously something the National Geographic Society is very concerned about maintaining,” Ford says.

The channel, with 55 million subscribers, has improved its numbers dramatically for six of the last seven quarters. For the third quarter of 2005, it is up 71% with audiences 25-54; up 62% with audiences 18-49; up 81% in men 25-54; and up 71% in men 18-49.

“They’re one of the great brands in media,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP/director of research for Horizon Media. “There’s a lot of shows of this type out there, a lot of competition, a lot of noise, and the fact that it is National Geographic helps it stand out. They’re growing at a pretty good clip. But it’s still on a lot of digital tiers—it is on my system. But I don’t think by any stretch it’s a top-tier network now.”

It does have a solid niche in the segment it follows: NatGeo is all about adventure and intelligent information.

In August, NatGeo gained critical acclaim for its two-part documentary, Inside 9/11, which examined the World Trade Center and the forces on the other side of the world that led to that fateful day.

But that show stands apart from “regular” NatGeo fare. To that end, there’s an unmistakable edge that’s developed since Ford arrived two years ago from Discovery, where he spearheaded programming and content. Shows like Naked Science to Mega Structures to Hippos: The Dark Side are examples of what Ford says is an effort at “contemporizing the brand” for a telecentric nation.

We have to respect the generation that’s grown up with cable,” he says. “They think Real World is a documentary, that that’s what a documentary is, and so the visual grammar of our business has changed.

“Take a great, award-winning, high-rated show from eight years ago in documentaries and you look at it now, you’ll be shocked at how slow it appears, how the music appears to be something out of the Renaissance, and how long the sound bites are,” he says. “What’s happened is, everything has had to evolve with the pace and taste of our audience, while staying true to our brand roots in terms of high quality of research.”

However, Ford says, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s all 'mega’ or 'extreme’ or 'the dark side.’ Explorer, for example, is none of that. And Naked Science is simply a science anthology—I think of it as Nova on steroids—that is every bit as credible as any science series you’re going to find.”

The presentation is important, but it all starts with facts—and lots of ’em. “We think that sets our programming apart,” Ford says, “because they want to feel smarter and in the know. We’ve given them such richness of information wrapped in an entertaining package with a nice pace, contemporary music, vernacular conversation. But we start with quality of information.”