Science television in America has had a rough few years. We've been told that mermaids exist (they don't) and that Megalodon lives (it doesn't). Investigative journalists have discovered that some wildlife shows mistreat animals. But Nat Geo Wild has largely bucked the trend of misleading or lying outright to viewers.
How does Nat Geo Wild achieve that sort of relative success in a landscape dominated by nonsense? Several weeks ago, we spoke with Geoff Daniels, General Manager and Executive Vice President of Nat Geo Wild, about his philosophy, the landscape of science programming on American television, and how scientifically accurate television can still be entertaining...and might even lead to proactive conservation-related behaviors.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
io9 Animals: Science on TV in America, it's complicated I think. And somehow while Discovery and Animal Planet seem to be going in the wrong direction, Nat Geo seems to be mostly going in the right direction. So I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on what is unique about the approach or philosophy of Nat Geo Wild
that allows it to to attract viewers without resorting to lying to them.
Geoff Daniels: I think what it comes down to is a real understanding and appreciation of what our brand stands for. I mean, I think that when you think of the National Geographic brand and the mission of the National Geographic Society and you look at these networks, these networks don't sit in isolation of that brand and of that mission. And so I think the first thing that I would say about that is that I think that all of us that work on the National Geographic channel and that work on Nat Geo Wild understand that we are, in many ways, the front door to that mission and that we have a responsibility to figure out how to make authentic science in all of its different guises entertaining, relevant, real, relatable, resonant with a broad audience…and not chase, if you will, the lowest common denominator. Because while we too have a commercial imperative, we need ratings, we need to make revenue like everybody else in the world, but we do also have this mission.
And I think you can either look at [that mission] as something that holds you back or you can look at it as something that actually makes you unique and stands out in a crowded landscape. And I think that distinction, as time goes on, because of where the rest of the industry is going, just gets easier and easier and easier.
So for Nat Geo Wild, when I talk about leaning into our brand and leaning into our niche, for me it's really about saying if we stay committed and focused and disciplined – taking the harder path, telling great science stories in a way that's entertaining, [not resorting] to cheap tricks and to false promises – in the long run, we will be stronger and we will be rewarded.
We may not get the biggest audience in the world, but I can assure you that we will have a high quality audience that is committed. Because in truth, it's better to have a few people who love you than a lot of people that will like you but leave you at the drop of a hat. And I think that what we're doing is trying to create an audience that comes to us day in and day out, week in and week out, because they know what we stand for. And I think that that's the ethos of both [Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild] networks.
io9: Is there sort of a guiding principle to balancing the need for narrative and storytelling and stakes? All those things that TV needs, even for science, with accuracy and fairness and content?
Daniels: There's a couple of levels for us. The first is that any show that we develop or any show that is pitched to us by a production company, we ultimately would have to run everything through our standards and practices group, which is an independent group that does not report to anybody at the network. There is really, if you will, a church and state relationship where the S&P group actually reports up through to the [National Geographic] Society. And in effect, they really are there in some ways to just ensure that we don't lose sight of our purpose and of what we stand for.
So that's a really great place to be because it then means that I have the freedom, as the head of Nat Geo Wild, to really look at a lot of different concepts and think about: okay, how do I take stories that have real scientific underpins and real merit and then figure out with our production partners how to deliver that in the most entertaining and commercially satisfying way possible?
And you're right, there is that balancing act, and I think that more often than not, I feel like we get it right. There's certainly times when you sort of miss it. But what I will tell you is that what's been kind of interesting for me is that when we've missed it, the audience lets us know like instantly. Like if I were to put the Megalodon show on air, honestly Nat Geo Wild would get crickets, like I couldn't… my audience doesn't expect that from us. So I do try to figure out how can we create surprise and delight and novelty around these subjects that could on the surface feel, if I went at them in a very straightforward way, could seem really boring and not win the battle of the program guide.
I typically people to walk away and be able to remember like three things from a show, something they've never seen before, something they've never heard before, some fact that they just want to go out and repeat to their wife or their kid or to their neighbor, to their colleague and say "gosh, you know, I was just watching Man v Lion and it was crazy. You wouldn't believe this scene where this guy was in a box and this lion was on top of it. But by the way, did you know that a lion can like run like 45 miles an hour? [Note: Man v Lion will air in November as part of Big Cat Week]
And so that's roughly… I'm sure if I'm answering your question.
io9: No, that makes perfect sense.
Daniels: Because I'm a subversive, so I kind of look at it and go: how can I use what everybody else in the landscape is doing and then turn it on its head in a way that's attractive? And then when I fill my tent, people go damn that's impressive or that's cool or that's great.
So right now, what we're doing with Shark Fest – I'm shamelessly letting Discovery do all the work for me. They've chummed the waters. They've brought in a huge number of people, by the way, most of whom don't give a hoot about natural history at all, or about animals in that sense. But they're pulling a big group of people and look, I'm running right under them with a very sort of tongue in cheek marketing campaign that is actually taking a poke at them.
But what we're seeing in social media is we're running really strong, just great behavioral films that have been made by some of the best filmmakers out there and some of the best storytellers out there. And when people come and they go oh, it's a shark, and then they stick on our network… we're starting to see people who are really appreciative of the difference [between Shark Fest and Shark Week] and are noticing that difference more and more. And they're saying "oh wow, they're not megalodon-ing me, they're actually giving me the real story behind those amazing animals in a way that just feels different to me."
But I'm constantly looking for how can I play in those spaces. I mean, Kingdom of the Apes is a classic example. Did you by any chance, see it?
io9: I missed it.
Daniels: So Kingdom of the Apes, we absolutely developed that show because of Planet of the Apes. Because I wanted to ride what was going to be in the zeitgeist. As soon as the first movie hit, we were like, we've got to do a show on apes. But we can't just do another documentary on apes because most documentaries on apes have never worked. So through National Geographic Society and their relationship with Jane Goodall and everybody else, we were able to basically get thirty years of archived footage.
There is not one new shot in that show. We were able to grab thirty years of footage of Titus the gorilla and Freud and Frodo, the chimpanzees that Jane Goodall made famous. And we were able to follow their story from birth to death and watch their rise to power, the Machiavellian politics, the betrayals, their struggle against invading tribes. And what I said to the team is: what I want the show to be is our version of Game of Thrones, only easier to follow.
And because we have the whole archive, we could tell that real narrative about those individual chimps' lives and watching the brother versus brother struggle. And we produced it with very cinematic storytelling values, with the kind of soundtrack that had that kind of epic theatrical feel, but we had the real footage.
And so when people came in it was like, wow, this is just an amazing story. The protagonist and antagonist just happen to be chimps, but they could follow that story. And I think that was an example of where we were innovating, not with technology, but with technique. And then we had the timing and all those other things and it broke all the records. If I put just a standard run of the mill chimp film on, we wouldn't have had the same success.
io9: So it's different from like the Disney chimpanzee movie in that you're not piecing together archived footage of different chimpanzees to create a narrative…you're actually taking the recorded narrative of these particular individuals?
Daniels: Correct. We told the history of their lives for thirty years. Nobody on earth had ever done it, had ever thought to do it, but we had the access to do it. And then what was really cool was Jane Goodall then hosted the show.
She did an intro for the show that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up because she's there and she's like… she gives you the Princess Bride moment. She's there and she says, I've known the story of these chimps' lives for the last thirty years, they're like family to me…and how the story turned out, I could have never imagined.
But again, when you're battling for eyeballs, when you know that very few people are appointment viewing anymore… we don't have the resources to buy eyeballs or to make an event just because we say it's an event. So we've got to figure out how to get people to come to us in different ways. I'm so proud of [Kingdom of the Apes] because it's an example of us being scrappy. And your Disney example is great. Look, those Disney films are wonderful.
io9: They do well.
Daniels: They're beautifully shot, they're wonderful. To be honest with you, I'm going to probably end up picking those up and running them in my Sunday night family slot also, because there's a place for those films.
io9: Yeah, and the science is good, but you still can't help… at least if you know enough to know what you're looking at, you can't help but feel a little bit cheated.
Daniels: Yeah, and the truth is that I put those films on and say look, those are just great heartwarming narratives that get people to fall in love with these animals. And if I can get people to fall in love with these animals and care for them, then I think that I have a better chance of getting them not only engaged with my channel, but I get them to maybe go to the National Geographic website and to interact with Big Cat Week and with the Big Cats Initiative and the Cause an Uproar campaign. And then maybe they follow the grants that we're making to scientists that are trying to preserve that little lion cub that they fell in love with.
And so for me, the game is to try to use the network as a way of becoming a front door that creates a deeper kind of engagement with the network. Because ultimately what I want Wild to be is more than a television channel. I want it to be… in some ways, I want it to be a lifestyle, I want it to be an ethos, I want it to be something that basically becomes a destination for people in all sorts of different platforms and in different arenas that is really about the positive things that we can take away from our relationship with the natural world and with animals. Because I think there's so few people out there that can actually move the dial and I think that we've got a brand and a platform that can do that.
But the most important thing, sort of bringing it full circle, is we have to be true. And I think that that takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of vision and leadership to be willing to have the courage of your convictions and to stand in there while everybody is running one way to say, "this may not be the quickest path to success, but I'm certain that if we stay there that we will create this loyal core of viewers and online followers that will start to evangelize for the network and start to tell their friends and start to tell their families, and that over time will grow."
io9: Do you think that there is a direct line between engendering emotions in TV viewers and actual conservation behavior?
io9: How do you think that goes?
Daniels: Because I think you can't inspire and motivate people to make a difference in conservation as an intellectual exercise. I think that people only do stuff that they truly care about and have an emotional connection to. It has to be personal. In some way, the people that are the most active, you know, people in the conservation world, it's a deeply personal commitment they're made that is grounded in their own emotional responses that they've foraged early in their lives. Or they've had some moment that crystallized for them that they needed to go and make a difference. And so I actually think that the path to positive activism is through emotional engagement. And I think that you can't do that by putting on heavy hitting, dire, guilt-ridden awfulness, because people see that every night on the news.
For me, the mission is about making people fall in love, to fall in love with that animal, to fall in love with that place. And then giving them the outlets and the opportunity to then, in their own way and in their own time, come into the tent and be inspired, to engage on deeper and deeper levels, whatever that level is. Because at the end of the day, I don't need everybody to become fire breathing activists. If one our shows inspires people to turn the water off in their house when they're brushing their teeth, that's success too. I can't measure it, it won't show up in a ratings report or in a board meeting, but I feel like I have a much better chance of achieving that.
Full disclosure: National Geographic Wild paid for our travel and other expenses.