As Reveille founding partner Howard T Owens gets his feet under the table at Nat Geo US, he tells Clive Whittingham about his plans to transform the network’s output.Howard T Owens has been president of National Geographic Channels in the US for just six months, and the fruits of his labours are now starting to emerge.
Under CEO David Lyle, who joined in August, Nat Geo is completely revamping its output, moving from an 80:20 split in favour of one-off docs to a position where the majority of the programming is returnable series.
“My aim is to make our programming more must-see television,” says Owen, who has assumed responsibility for National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Mundo in the US. “I want to make franchise television that features characters and subcultures and prisms into different societies that matter, have not been seen and will resonate with a much larger audience than we have today.
“Until five months ago the focus was 80% one-off docs and 20% series and specials. In the few months I’ve been here, we’ve really tried to reverse that paradigm and make it primarily specials and series, with some spectacular one-offs where we feel the need.”
But you don’t switch from an 80:20 skew to 20:80 in just a few months, which at times leaves Owens talking about a schedule in transition.
“What I really don’t want is the saccharin ‘celebrity wants to go and save sea turtles’ sort of programme,” he says. “It could potentially be an interesting special for Nat Geo Wild, but we tend to get people saying ‘Hey, we’re celebrities and we’re going to save the world,’ and it’s not real. I’ve never seen that kind of show work.”
Owens does admit that Nat Geo is working on celebrity projects, but ones that emphasise the issues that are already important in their lives, rather than those they’ve been parachuted into for a cheap ratings hit. “We don’t want it to feel contrived. We want it to be believable and to capture people who are already doing something, not people who we set up to do something,” he explains, before also admitting there are some competitive unscripted shows in the pipeline as well.
Thom Beers’ Original Productions is working on Are You Tougher Then a Boy Scout? (6×60′), where adults complete challenges in competition with Scouts.
“I should say never say never. We’re looking for hit television franchises that fit within our filter, but that filter is growing and it’s pretty navigable right now, so we don’t want too many borders to our thinking,” he adds.
The network announced a raft of new programming at its upfront in March.
Jersey Combat (10×60′) sees Big Fat Gypsy Weddings producer Firecracker Films look inside a New Jersey military warehouse and Pawn Stars prodco Leftfield Pictures is hunting for hidden treasures in demolition sites with Bid and Destroy (12×30′).
Major events for the channel include Killing Lincoln, the previously announced special from Scott Free Productions based on the best-selling book, and The 80s: The Decade that Made Us, from Jane Root’s prodco Nutopia.
Ben Silverman’s Electus is also embarking on an ambitious project to recreate the 66-day Mayflower expedition of 1620, when the ship sailed from England to America carrying more than 100 Christian dissenters later known as the Pilgrim Fathers.
Owens arrived at Nat Geo in November last year after leaving Reveille, which he helped found with Silverman in 2002, to replace Steve Schiffman. He was brought in by Lyle, who himself had only taken up his position in August, after being head of the now-defunct Fox Look.
“Once I left Reveille I was looking for a new and interesting challenge and I have always had a sincere appreciation for Nat Geo, the magazine and the brand,” says Owens. “It was always smart and instinctual as a brand. That really appealed to me. It wasn’t phony, it was insightful and smart, and that’s the sort of television I want to make. It felt like a good fit.”
It is clear that both Lyle and Owens intend to take the US channels in a different direction. Owens mentions the word “franchise” a lot, saying he is actively looking for more character-led returnable series such as the network’s Doomsday Preppers.
“In the next 12 months I want three series that are big, substantial television franchises that everybody knows about,” he says. “Anybody who has watched TV for the past 12 years, particularly factual and non-scripted, beginning with The Real World and Survivor, would understand that characters are imperative for maintaining a connection with your audience.”
And that audience is likely to get younger as a result of this new focus. “We’re trying to make programming that’s more relevant,” Owens says. “Yes, I expect us to get younger, and is that a goal? It is. But I wouldn’t say we’re chasing the 29-year-old man. We’re trying to grow our audience and create resonant TV that will stimulate social media conversation and viral awareness, and that sort of show immediately gets you a younger and broader audience.
“A lot of what we do can be seen by people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and that will probably be refined over the next 12 months. Our hits will help redefine what our channels become.”
Nat Geo is slightly behind the curve on that, with Discovery Networks having long since gone down this path with its various channels. Similarly, A+E Networks made dramatic changes to History, wrapping history and facts into programmes like Pawn Stars for a returnable series, rather than more traditional, dry one-off history documentaries.
Of the competition Owens says they’re clearly doing well, and Nat Geo is all too aware of their success, but the focus is firmly inwards at the moment. The new executive team is getting its own house in order. “My competitors are already there in some regards, so we have a little catching up to do. But we also don’t have the anchor of a huge audience that we’re afraid to scare away or annoy,” he says.
“We have the ability to create a new landscape for our channels, and that is liberating. We’re not really looking as much at our competition right now. We’re looking inwards at making ourselves the best and most creative organisation we can be.
“Other people are doing incredibly well – we’re certainly not naïve to that – but also I would rather be first with a genre like Doomsday Preppers than be fifth. That’s not to say we won’t go after genres that are working, but it would be much better to be creatively forward-thinking.”
One genre that is working well elsewhere is ‘man vs wild’ with genuine jeopardy, whether that’s life in a Louisiana swamp in Swamp People or battling dangerous seas in Deadliest Catch. Nat Geo wasn’t the pioneer in this space but Owens is hopeful it could take the lead with new series Wicked Tuna, from Craig Piligian’s Pilgrim Studios, which focuses on the competitive world of tuna fishing off Massachusetts and launched in March.
“Wicked Tuna is late in the ‘man vs wild on the ocean’ genre – there has already been Deadliest Catch and a variety of others have been tried,” Owens admits. “But this isn’t so much about fisherman as a culture of people who live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who make a living from the ocean by reeling in tuna that can bring in US$20,000 a catch and change these people’s fortunes in a day.
“The kind of filmmaking that represents – really tight, well-produced, well-edited, character-driven, high-stakes docudrama – is something that I really like. From a stylistic point of view it represents our future, and from a content perspective it’s not something we will shy away from, even if elements of it have already been out there.”
The desire to roll out hit series across global channels shouldn’t deter producers who fear they will lose all their rights when they accept Nat Geo commissions, according to Owens, who says he’s keen to look after prodcos that “hit a home run” for the broadcaster.
They’ve already attracted Beers, Silverman and Tony and Ridley Scott for projects.
Owens concludes: “The main challenge is to make sure our organisation is creatively working together and firing on all cylinders to maximise the talent that we have here and building creative partnerships. We are reaching out to the best executors in the world to help produce great television.”