David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, has seen enough of the letters to know how they go. The writer is typically a longtime reader of the magazine, who perhaps recalls the times he leafed through its glossy pages while perched on grandpa’s knee.
“The second paragraph,” he said, “would always be, `So you can imagine my disappointment when …’ ”
Fill in the blank. Maybe the person saw the channel’s documentary about escort services, or a show about a man who sculpts with a chain saw. Perhaps it was a show about Gypsies, UFO hunters or people stocking up for the imminent end of the world.
Every day Lyle and his executive team face the challenge of building a successful network in the era of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty without damaging a National Geographic brand that has stood for quality since the magazine was first published in 1888.
The first three months of 2013 represented the network’s best quarter since its launch in 2001. It averaged 554,000 viewers in prime time, propelled by Doomsday Preppers, the Wicked Tuna series about fishermen in Gloucester, Mass., and a movie dramatization of Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Lincoln.
“We have a lot to grow on,” Lyle said. “We have just scratched the surface with the types of shows and the types of people and ideas we can explore.”
Toward the end of 2011, Lyle appointed Howard Owens, a founder of Reveille Productions, as the network’s president. The station is a joint venture between National Geographic and the Fox cable networks.
Before its makeover, NatGeo was a musty network that aired documentaries with “voice of God” narrators and few reasons for people to watch regularly, Lyle said. The new team’s mandate was to make the channel contemporary and “add the big E – entertainment” without alienating people.
Owens was told to take some swings quickly. Not all connected, like last year’s Chasing UFOs, about alien hunters, or American Gypsies.
“People turn to National Geographic to be captivated, to be taken away and maybe to learn something,” Owens said. “This was brash entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and that didn’t work for us.”
There clearly have been culture clashes between supporters of the National Geographic Society, the scientific and educational institution that publishes the magazine and partly owns the channel, and the National Geographic Channel.
The society’s outgoing CEO, John Fahey, said some of the channel’s programming choices didn’t help the brand, primarily because there was an attempt to emulate what other networks were doing.
“The channel has clearly decided that they wanted to make sure the shows are smarter shows and reflect the brand,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet but we are making good progress.”
Fahey praised the upcoming Brain Games, which premieres April 22 and puts the brain through a series of experiments and optical illusions. The returning series Locked up Abroad on Wednesday tells the story of former Vietnam War soldier Ernie Brace, a friend of John McCain who was held captive for nearly eight years.
“We’re running toward smart,” Lyle said, “when a lot of people aren’t.”