Former Channel 4 documentary chief Hamish Mykura talks to Clive Whittingham about his new role with National Geographic and how the network is revolutionising its output.
Rarely has there been such an about-turn in the programming ethos of a network as the one National Geographic is currently attempting to pull off at its US and international channels.
From a position where the output skewed 80/20 in favour of one-off docs, Nat Geo is attempting to completely reverse that in favour of character-led, returnable series in double-quick time under CEO David Lyle, who was appointed in August 2011.
To that end National Geographic Channels International hired Hamish Mykura, former head of documentaries at the UK’s Channel 4, at the turn of the year to lead a London-based commissioning hub.
Although Mykura praises the UK production community for swiftly adapting to Nat Geo’s demands he does admit that initially it was a challenge. “When I came here I had to say to people ‘Whatever ideas you’ve brought in to pitch me, let’s not even discuss them, let’s discuss some other ideas, because they won’t be right for what I’m looking for,’” he says.
Mykura, officially Nat Geo’s executive VP and head of international content, now finds himself up against Julian Bellamy, with whom he used to work at C4 where Bellamy was chief creative officer. Bellamy is now creative director and head of production and development at Discovery Networks International, heading a commissioning team in London. Mykura admits they are now chasing similar programmes.
“Julian and I worked closely together at C4,” he says. “There certainly will be some of our programmes that could work on different channels, but there are certain values to Nat Geo that make it distinct. There are some areas where we would try to dominate, and even though other channels may try to have a crack at them, we’ll always be the place where people expect that kind of programming – the big exploration adventures, for example.”
Like Discovery, and others besides, the key isn’t so much the subject matter as the formats, which now have to be entertainment-based and returnable. “There are values that people identify with clearly for Nat Geo,” Mykura says. “That yellow rectangular border that we all know from the magazine carries a lot of meaning and you know that programmes are going to have a certain set of values and be a certain kind of programme about a certain kind of subject: the outdoors, anthropology, exploration, engineering, history, man and the environment.
“What we can do is still be true to these values but make a different kind of programme about these subject areas, so the programmes themselves don’t have to be stuffy, formal or old fashioned in any way.
“The challenge is finding new ways of making programmes about anthropology or engineering that are entertaining and character-led but at the same time stay true to what Nat Geo is.”
Nat Geo may be a later convert than some of its rivals but it’s certainly now singing from the same hymn sheet as most other factual channels and producers around the world. However, the trend towards more character-driven, returnable series has led to accusations of dumbing down. When History is airing Pawn Stars and Swamp People and Nat Geo is commissioning competition series, is it valid to wonder if the ‘fact’ has gone from factual? Where is the history on History? Where is the geography on Nat Geo?
Delegates at History Makers International in New York in January and Sheffield Doc/Fest in June asked as much, but Mykura brushes aside concerns about reduced factual content in modern series.
“I’ve been in the world of documentary making in TV for 15 or 20 years now,” he says. “Every year you find people standing up at forums like History Makers or Doc/Fest saying documentary is in terminal decline, it’s dumbing down, it’s disastrous. Yet every year there seems to be more of it around, more variety in the way it’s being made, more creativity in it, better and better people getting drawn into making factual.
“I don’t think it’s true to say that documentary is being dumbed down or new formats are less intelligent. There isn’t any evidence of that at all. Finding new ways of making programmes and refreshing them is always a good thing. People will always tell you the old way was better, but the old way often wasn’t better. There are a lot of good-old-days merchants in this business.”
Mykura was with C4′s factual department for a decade, most recently combining the role of head of documentaries with being head of its diginet More 4.
BBC Storyville editor Nick Fraser told delegates at Sheffield he felt it was a “minor scandal” that C4 had bumped a lot of its serious factual content on to More 4 and that nobody had complained.
Mykura talks a lot about the balance of schedules, and insists there is still a role for serious one-offs, on both the domestic terrestrial channel he left behind and the international network he has joined. “What we’re doing here corresponds very much with what I’ve been doing at More 4 and the documentary department at C4, where the moves were towards series that you could really return.
“There’s always going to be room for one-offs and singles but they have to be special and really stand out. You don’t just want these programmes to be talked about on the TV pages of the newspaper, you want them to be in the news pages.”
Mykura points to filmmaker James Cameron’s dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, which made for an excellent one-off film, as an example of a strong character and concept that attracted media coverage. “A lot of it is about getting the mix right. If you’re having more formatted long-running series then there needs to be space within that for single films and for events that have one-off impact and distinction,” he says. “It’s about making sure there is a channel ecology that has a mix of programmes going on. It’s always one of the things I’ve been focused on at the channels I’ve worked for, and it’s the same at Nat Geo.”
The first commission to come from Mykura’s programming hub is Strippers: Cars for Cash, a 10x60′ competition series in which UK classic car enthusiasts take apart old bangers to see who can make the most profit by selling the parts. Attaboy TV is producing for an autumn premiere.
Two US factual shows, Doomsday Preppers and Family Guns, are also rolling out internationally, and Nat Geo is hoping to enjoy some of the success History had with Hatfields & McCoys when it airs its own dramatised historical production Killing Lincoln early next year.
Family Guns, made by UK indie Firecracker Films, focuses on a father and son who run the biggest military memorabilia dealership in New Jersey, According to Mykura, the series shows the strength of the UK production industry and explains why Discovery and Nat Geo have chosen to set up international commissioning hubs in London. “The key is having close relationships with the production community,” he says. “The UK really is at the forefront of factual production. We’re talking about what we’re after, they’re bringing us ideas and we get on the same wavelength.
“The objective is to be working with the best people in town and to be the first port of call for people with new ideas so people get into the habit of bringing their best ideas to us.”
The keys to achieving that, according to Mykura, are responding quickly, being clear in what the company wants and paying well. Without going into specifics, he says his team is paying fees on a par with terrestrial channels, if it likes the content enough.
Also key is Nat Geo’s approach to rights retention and this issue reared its head last month, after John McVay, CEO of indie trade body Pact, voiced concerns about UK indies handing over all rights to commissions from international pay-TV networks in the UK.
Responding to McVay’s concerns at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Mykura said: “There is a pre-conception on the part of some of the UK producers that there are absolutely no deal on rights available from the international broadcasters, so we might as well not bother… But actually, when people come and have those conversations, they are often surprised by the number and range of different rates and deals that can be done,” said Mykura.
“I’ve been dazzled by the extraordinary number and complexity of ways in which these rights packages can sometimes be carved up, and also by the number of coproduction partners that we can deal with… These deals can be very lucrative and good business for production companies.”
Mykura’s team has recently been completed at senior level with the appointment of Edward Sayer, formerly with ITV Studios, as commissioning editor alongside Hannah Demidowicz. Mykura previously promoted Matt Taylor to oversee programming and content for the international market, after he previously looked after Europe, and brought in Jules Oldroyd, with whom he worked at C4, as VP of programming and strategic development. “That’s basically my team in place. I have all the major roles appointed and we’re ready to rock,” says Mykura.
Rocking to a new tune certainly, but he’s also keen to maintain the traditional Nat Geo values.