Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners (NGP), talks to TV Real about leading the multifaceted group through its next big transition while remaining focused on the brand’s commitment to science, conservation and education.
National Geographic is expected to be one of the pillars of the Disney+ direct-to-consumer service that will launch in the U.S. later this year. Its positioning alongside other iconic names—including Star Wars and Marvel—is a testament to how much National Geographic’s new owners value the storied brand. The move to Disney will be the second major transformation for National Geographic in the last few years, following 21st Century Fox’s $725-million deal with the National Geographic Society, in 2015, that brought together the cable channels, publishing, travel and more, under one entity.
TV REAL: It’s been a couple of years now since the deal that brought the National Geographic publishing and television arms together. What have been the significant benefits of combining all the assets under one umbrella?
KNELL: The motivation was to try to scale up and integrate the assets. Fox and National Geographic had a joint venture on the cable side for nearly 20 years. Three and half years ago we decided to merge the print and digital assets with television so that we would have one National Geographic media group that could integrate messages, creative, marketing, etc., and not speak with a forked tongue. The idea was, especially because so much is becoming digital and more on-demand, it was all going to come crashing together anyway, so we might as well get ahead of the curve and try to pull it all together. And we could harness Fox’s global reach, led by Peter Rice, to greatly expand our footprint.
TV REAL: What overall strategy did you put into place when you became chairman last year?
KNELL: I was running the nonprofit for the first two years of its new iteration and we were trying to create a culture there of being a more impactful NGO that was focused on conservation, grantmaking and education. When I was asked to come over here, it was to help get NGP through the transition with Disney and to try to better rationalize the assets we have towards a more cohesive and coherent message around our creative catalog, and making National Geographic more of a must-have and less of a nice-to-have. That was the agenda. It’s running two fundamentally important businesses, one on the television side and one on the media side—print and digital—and then pulling those together where appropriate.
TV REAL: Nat Geo’s Instagram feed recently topped the 100-million-follower mark. How has this 130-plus-year-old brand managed to stay so relevant in a fragmented marketplace?
KNELL: It’s pretty cool that a 131-year-old brand is now more popular than Nicki Minaj and Khloé Kardashian! Part of it is we have captured the magic of photography. Millennials entered the world as digital natives and visual learners. Even though photography in many ways has become a commodity through things like the iPhone, great photography is not a commodity. People admire and respond to brilliant images from the world’s greatest photographers, sometimes more than the written word. We happened to be in the position to capture that if we could execute on some of these social media platforms appropriately, and fortunately we have. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, I follow you on Instagram! It’s people of all ages. It’s pretty amazing. And not just in the U.S. We have huge numbers in India, Europe, Indonesia, other countries around the world.
TV REAL: What are the challenges of operating a fact-based brand in an environment where “fake news” and misinformation are so widespread?
KNELL: We’ve always had a position here to follow the science. It’s a scientifically-based organization that is not political in the sense of partisan politics. But we have not shied away from controversial topics. We did a big issue on the war on science a couple of years ago that talked about the things that people from the left and right challenge for different reasons—climate change, vaccines, GMOs or other issues that people tend to pick and choose which science they want to believe based on their political beliefs. Our view is to debunk those myths and lay out the science. People can make up their own minds on what they want to believe. We’ve got to be engaged in stating the facts around these important scientific realities.
TV REAL: Can you give us some examples of how the various divisions are collaborating?
KNELL: We’re working across the company on an initiative around space this year, because of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, called Starstruck. It began with the second season of Mars in November and includes an entire week of programming this summer, including a two-hour Apollo documentary, books, magazine content, live events, space photography and educational materials.
In the future, we’ll be working on an initiative around oceans, which will be a major one for us with content across all of our platforms. We have a lot of programs about protecting marine areas around the world through the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project. So it’s educating people about the oceans and telling the stories of the heroes of the ocean who are doing amazing things to protect places under tremendous pressure.
We look at our toolkit and try to think about what could be used to add to our storytelling capabilities. Those could be documentaries, print—magazines or books—social media, short-form videos, live events, travel, museum exhibits or educational materials in schools. We’re trying to look at our entire 360-degree approach, which is something that Disney likes as well, to figure out how we can surround-sound our consumers with the topics we want to promote.
TV REAL: How are you attracting talent, be it explorers and scientists at the Society or Ron Howard at the channel?
KNELL: Courteney [Monroe, president of National Geographic Global Television Networks] has led a push towards excellence. We doubled down on trying to attract world-class talent on shows like One Strange Rock [with Darren Aronofsky], and working with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer from Imagine on Genius and Mars, Brett Morgen on Jane, and our latest documentary, Free Solo, which just [won] an Oscar. This is a leap that I would argue National Geographic should have made some time ago. And under Courteney’s leadership, I think we’ve been able to do that well. To me it’s recapturing a space we have been in in the past and we should always be in. The fact that we [won] an Oscar is pretty amazing given that we just rebooted the documentary film unit two years ago. We’ve won a BAFTA and last fall we became the only network in history to win three cinematography Emmys in one year. It shows that the creative community is responding to the call of National Geographic.
TV REAL: You’ve had a commitment to mission-based organizations throughout your career with roles at Sesame Workshop and NPR before joining National Geographic. Has that been by design?
KNELL: I guess that has been my calling. I grew up in L.A., so I grew up learning about the world through movies! I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling to change the world. It’s about coming up with compelling human stories that emote for people. [At Sesame Workshop] we were using the power of those muppets to get kids to learn letters, numbers and social and emotional lessons. At NPR we had to tell people such compelling stories that they would have what we called a “driveway moment” and stay in the car to hear the ending even after they’ve arrived at home. And at National Geographic, a stunning set of photographs or a television program can move people to do something. The world has a lot of challenges and we don’t have a lot of time to waste. I believe that there are a lot of people like me who want to be engaged and not just passively entertained.
TV REAL: What tech innovations are you most excited about in the doc space right now?
KNELL: I think that when you see Free Solo on an IMAX screen, it’s pretty breathtaking! Most importantly, the planet has some challenges that are unfortunately exacerbated by the inability of people to be in nature. We’ve done some pretty amazing virtual reality experiences that do bring you as close as you possibly can be without being there. [VR provides] that ability to give people in daily urban existence an appreciation of what’s happening in our oceans and in the wild. Those are opportunities and even, I would say, responsibilities for National Geographic to engage around. If National Geographic doesn’t do that, who will?
TV REAL: What are your key priorities for the 12 to 18 months ahead as you guide the organization through its transition to Disney?
KNELL: The biggest advice I’ve given the staff is that this will be an opportunity for National Geographic to grow our presence. Disney is a huge leader in kids, in technology, in understanding consumers, in live engagement like the parks and travel businesses. Even the retail operations Disney has, with National Geographic having a presence in those. And they are betting a lot on the direct-to-consumer Disney+ and Hulu platforms. They’ve already said National Geographic is going to be one of the five brands they’ll be out there promoting, along with Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel and Disney. That’s a big deal for us! We’ve now got to come up with a programming slate that meets the challenge, for both linear and on-demand. We want to keep our publishing enterprise healthy. A lot of that is driving our subscription base more to a membership environment, in which people are “investing” in National Geographic as a cause rather than just a passive product to buy. We have a lot of work in front of us, but I think we’re well positioned in an on-demand environment. In media, we’re moving from a pre-fixe world to an à-la-carte world. The days of pre-fixe anything are certainly behind us. The sooner we can adjust to an à-la-carte world, the better. We need to be able to reach people wherever they are. Some people will want a cable package, some will want to watch our shows on-demand, other people will want to buy a photograph, other people will want to take photographs and submit them to us. All of these avenues need to be driven by the consumer and their engagement with our brand.
National Geographic, through all of its media, as well as its nonprofit activities, is a unique construct as an organization. There are no others like this, where you have a media company married to a nonprofit organization that is doing incredible work out in the world. The World Wildlife Fund is doing great work, but they don’t have a media enterprise. Discovery is doing some interesting shows, but they don’t have a nonprofit enterprise that is making a meaningful impact. That’s where we can drive an agenda that people will respond to, especially younger people who are magnetically attracted to brands that are impact-driven and making a difference in the world. That’s why we think we’re well positioned to grow in the future. The new partnership with Disney will give us the scale and opportunity to do that.