National Geographic’s Courteney Monroe

Courteney Monroe, president of National Geographic Global Television Networks, talks to TV Real about the transition to Disney ownership, platform-agnostic storytelling and the Field Ready Program to promote diversity in the natural-history-filmmaking sector.

Monroe has led a complete transformation of the National Geographic television networks since taking on oversight of the portfolio. She placed a focus on premium factual, restarted the business’s theatrical documentary segment, led a drive into high-end scripted and sealed a range of partnerships with top creatives, including Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and the filmmaking duo of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose Free Solo won the Academy Award for best documentary last year.

***Image***TV REAL: Tell us about the integration into Disney, and what new ownership has meant for your portfolio.
MONROE: Being part of The Walt Disney Company is a massive opportunity for the National Geographic brand. Not just for the television and doc film business that I oversee, but for the span of the enterprise in terms of our travel and consumer-products businesses. Disney leadership from the very top levels is incredibly engaged with, enthusiastic about and supportive of our brand, business and strategy. It has meant zero change to our programming strategy. In fact, I am grateful that we pivoted to the pre­mium strategy when we did because it prepared us to join The Walt Disney Company and for this massive shift in the marketplace that is direct-to-consumer. We are one of five brands on Disney+. Being one of those five brands—and the only one that came over from the Fox transaction—is such a tremendous opportunity for us to expand our programming slate and expand to new audiences.

TV REAL: What is your short-form doc strategy? How do you determine what would play better as a short-form series versus a longer-form series?
MONROE: We’re doing what we do best, which is to be creativity driven and idea driven. The lion’s share of the content we will be making is long form. But last year, we acquired two short-form doc series, The Nightcrawlers and Lost and Found, both of which made it onto the festival circuit—and The Nightcrawlers made the Oscar shortlist! They were stories, visions and voices we wanted to support. #impact, the Gal Gadot series that we announced recently, was initially pitched to us as a long-form series. But upon screening some tape, we just felt that the stories would be tighter and more compelling as short form. All of the creative people involved agreed. It’s not like we were looking for a short-form series to create. We just loved the idea of being able to showcase these incredible young women, who have overcome unbelievable odds, not just on linear, which is why we’ll be launching #impact as digital shorts, culminating in an hour-long special on the channel. We certainly have distribution platforms for short form if we feel the stories lend themselves to that. We have our own digital platforms: we’re the number one brand on Instagram—we have a massive footprint in social media. And Disney+ is making short form as well. If the content lends itself to a more traditional long-form storytelling, then we’ll do that.


TV REAL: Having all these different sandboxes to play in must be so much fun for your programming teams and the creatives you work with.
MONROE: It’s really fun. Our number one priority is to create compelling, high-quality, distinctive storytelling that lives up to the expectations of the National Geographic brand. And not having a formula around format or platform is very liberating to our creative teams, and it makes for incredibly collaborative conversations with filmmakers, producers, showrunners and writers. We can say to them, “Let’s figure out what is going to be the most successful version of this story, and on what platform is this story most going to thrive?” That’s a good way to run a creative business! Sometimes you can’t do that. If the only space you’re in is ad-supported cable television, you’re going to say no to a lot of things that don’t make sense for that platform. We can say, “This a great ad-supported show for cable television, advertisers will love it, we can do brand and product integration.” Or, “This is a show that would be such a great subscription acquisition vehicle for direct to consumer.” Or, “This is about impact, so let’s just get it out, unauthenticated, across all our digital platforms so as many people can see it as possible.” Those are the conversations we have once we fall in love with an idea or a storyteller.

TV REAL: You’ve had a ton of success with your reinvigorated feature film doc division. What are your continued plans for that segment?
MONROE: I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to achieve in just the past three years with our National Geographic Documentary Films banner. We created it as we were pivoting our overall programming strategy, with the goal of assuming the mantle of leadership in documentary filmmaking. I felt strongly that this was a space National Geographic should occupy. What we’ve accomplished, starting with record-breaking global viewership of Before the Flood with Leonardo DiCaprio, all the way to our second consecutive Oscar nomination this year for The Cave and the critical and box-office success of our Oscar winner Free Solo, has been pretty extraordinary. We have an unbelievable pipeline of films in development or production, including Rebuilding Paradise, directed by Ron Howard, and our recent acquisition out of Sundance, the critically acclaimed Saudi Runaway. When you have success, it becomes a great beacon for storytellers who want to bring their best projects to you. And we’re being very curated and careful. There are others in this space, other streamers, for whom it’s much more of a tonnage play. For us, it’s not a tonnage play. We want to be able to give these projects our full attention and support. So when you do a feature doc with Nat Geo, you will know we are all in. We have the ability to get behind a filmmaker’s vision, not just from a content-development and production perspective, but also from the perspective of distribution, awards and impact. It’s probably the best proof point of our transformation and our success over the past couple of years.

TV REAL: How is the scripted strategy progressing?
MONROE: Scripted drama is not the lion’s share of our content, but it’s an important component, and it’s been responsible for a lot of our awards attention, press and buzz. Not every scripted story is right for us. Any scripted drama that we decide to make has to be grounded in factual authenticity. We want to work with the best creative minds in the business, but the story has to be aligned with our brand.

We’re looking at expanding The Hot Zone, the highest-rated scripted series in the history of our network, potentially into a recurring anthology series. Genius is our critically acclaimed recurring anthology series from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. We’re very focused on our next installment on Aretha Franklin, but we’re already thinking about what might be next. I’m proud of The Right Stuff, which we’re producing with Warner Horizon and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way. In success, that could be a returning series. It’s based on the book by Tom Wolfe, not so much the movie, which chronicled the full history of NASA’s space program. We have our first foray into historical fiction, based on Annie Proulx’s book Barkskins—which could also be a recurring drama—with Fox 21 Television Studios and Scott Rudin. It’s not based on real people the way The Right Stuff is, but it is very much grounded in historical accuracy. While we are in development on some other ideas, again, this is not a tonnage play for us; it’s highly curated.

TV REAL: Tell us about the Field Ready Program. How did it come about?
MONROE: Two junior executives on our natural history and wildlife programming team spotted a need during preproduction on Queens, which is a natural-history series that we are working on with Wildstar Films profiling animal species that come from matriarch-driven societies. The entire production crew and the cinematographers will be women. In the process of our teams looking to staff up that production, they realized there is a dearth of female and diverse voices in wildlife and natural-history cinematography and production. It has very much been a white male-dominated creative community. National Geographic has always been a leader in the natural-history-filmmaking space. We should be at the forefront of promoting diversity in the pipeline of talent who can fill the ranks of every job: directors, cinematographers and production assistants. We’re partnering with the National Geographic Society on the Field Ready Program, which is a mentorship and training program designed to clear a path for young, diverse talent interested in working behind the camera in natural-history production. We’ve already reached out to many production companies to say, “We’re going to invest in this, join forces with us, serve as mentors, and then we can connect and help network once this talent comes through the program.”

TV REAL: I love what you’ve done with Brain Games. How are you maintaining that franchise and others?
MONROE: We’re looking at lots of IP that we have in our arsenal and thinking about how we could reimagine and reformat some of these titles that resonated with audiences. Brain Games is a perfect example. We take the heart and DNA of what audiences loved­ and reimagine it and make it more entertaining and more talent driven. We’re working with Magical Elves and the amazing Keegan-Michael Key in bringing celebrities to that format to increase the star wattage and the level of fun, but still maintain what made that show great, which is unlocking and understanding how our brains work.
We’re always looking to work with great talent. Running Wild with Bear Gryllsis a show that has run for a long time in other places. We’ve taken that format and added some muscularity and a greater sense of adventure for the Nat Geo audience. We’re working on the second season of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted. Ramsay is an example of a talent who is well known, but is being presented in a completely different format than people are accustomed to seeing him in. We’re working with Bertram van Munster and his talented team, who created and produced The Amazing Race, on a new format called Race to the Center of the Earth. It’s a global adventure competition format, but very different. It draws on classic National Geographic themes: exotic locations, breathtaking visuals and true feats of adventure. Developing our franchises means finding great talent, behind and in front of the camera, and evolving and finding new stories to tell with them that make sense for our brand.

TV REAL: What are some of the other programming highlights you’re excited about?
MONROE:  I know I briefly mentioned it, but right now I am most excited for our next installment of Genius which is [about] Aretha Franklin. It stars double Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo and the incredible Courtney B. Vance. I have seen an early cut of the first episode, and it floored me. Cynthia is so unbelievably talented I think she is going to just blow audiences way. I am also excited about our upcoming investigative series Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller. Mariana is a Peabody Award-winning journalist. She has done specials for us in the past, but this is the first time she’s headlining her own series. I love that we have a bad-ass female headlining a hardcore investigative series. Trafficked embodies inside access, which National Geographic has long been known for. Our yellow border gets us access to people and places and organizations that many don’t have access to. Mariana is fearless and she is looking at the underworld trafficking of goods and services that end up being more important to the global economy than traditional capitalist markets are. She’s someone we’re leaning into. She’s homegrown talent for us. I think this is something that markets all around the world will be very interested in.

This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Media companies are currently shifting their strategies in the wake of production postponements and economic trends.