National Geographic’s Courteney Monroe

Courteney Monroe, the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, tells TV Real about her strategy for remaining firmly focused on upping the ambitions of Nat Geo’s programming team, shifting away from the lower-budget reality series that dominated the service in years past and betting big on high-end, innovative, buzz-generating concepts.

National Geographic scored 17 Primetime Emmy nominations this year, including ten for its first scripted series, Genius, two each for Life Below Zero and Wild… and one each for StarTalk, LA 92and Year Million. The accolades cap two years of significant transformation at the channels group, overseen by Courteney Monroe, the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks. Monroe was upped to the post in 2015 after serving as CEO of National Geographic Channels U.S. That came as the entire organization went through a restructure following 21st Century Fox’s $725 million deal with the National Geographic Society to form National Geographic Partners. The entity, 73-percent owned by Fox, encompasses the global channels portfolio, the 129-year-old magazine, digital platforms, the maps and travel businesses and more.

***Image***TV REAL: In the time since we last spoke you’ve taken on oversight of the overall global portfolio. Why was this restructure important for the National Geographic channels?
MONROE: It’s been an exciting development, and it makes a lot of strategic sense for our business. There have been two big organizational changes since we last spoke. One is that we consolidated the management of National Geographic global programming. I now work very closely with the heads of the FOX Networks Groups in Asia, Europe and Latin America, who run the FOX channels businesses, of which National Geographic is a part. They are responsible for the management, the P&Ls, in those countries. National Geographic is such a global brand—we are distributed in 171 countries, in 45 languages. We felt that there was an opportunity to aggregate our programming budgets so we could pursue this more ambitious strategy that I first talked to you about two years ago, where we’re doing fewer but bigger and better. And the brand doesn’t differ around the world. National Geographic has been around for 130 years, and it is very strong in what it stands for. We felt that there was an opportunity to deliver content globally that is more valuable over the long term and create global franchises.

The other big growth is that National Geographic Partners was formed. The television business of National Geographic has always been a joint venture between 21st Century Fox and the non-profit National Geographic Society. And then back in November 2015, 21st Century Fox invested heavily in the National Geographic Society for the formation of National Geographic Partners. It’s basically an expanded joint venture. So all of the commercial and media assets that are part of National Geographic—the magazine, the massive digital footprint, the book business, the travel expeditions business, the kids’ business—are now part of the joint venture between Fox and National Geographic Society. We have this unparalleled portfolio of assets at our disposal all around the world. All of those businesses exist globally. We can harness all of those assets to extend our storytelling. When we launched MARS, for example, it was a really big television series, but it was also a cover story for National Geographic Magazine, two different books and a speaker series. We’re able to create greater impact in the marketplace by eventizing these programming fran­chises across all of our platforms. We’re also able to have really interesting and distinct conversations with brands, potential sponsors, all around the world. Rather than just talking to brands about coming on board and sponsoring a television series, we are well positioned to talk to them about true 360-degree cross-platform sponsorships that exist across all of our media platforms, be it magazines, digital or television. That is exciting, and it’s what CMOs of brands are looking for.

In addition, our digital footprint is massive. We are the number one brand in social media. We are the number one non-celebrity brand on Instagram. So the management of this business globally, not just from a content and storytelling perspective but also from a platform perspective, is setting us up for some distinctive advantages.

Finally, the National Geographic Society remains a very important partner. We’re a media company with a real sense of mission and purpose, aligned with a real scientific organization. In fact, this is also a key distinguisher—[National Geographic Partners] gives 27 percent of its proceeds back to the National Geographic Society to fund their mission. No other network even comes close, so we actually practice what we preach.

TV REAL: You had just dipped your toe in scripted two years ago. How has that initiative progressed?
MONROE: We had dabbled in scripted with a few films that were based on best-selling books, Killing Reagan and Killing Kennedy. Those were very successful for us at the time. Genius, which we launched this past spring, was our first truly scripted series and it became our number one series all around the world. It was recently nominated for ten Emmys, which is unbelievable. Getting nominated for best original limited series against the likes of shows from FX and HBO is a tremendous testament to two things: our ability to execute in this space, and that there is an appetite for scripted from us. But we are never going to be a fully scripted network. We are being very selective and highly curated. The lion’s share of our programming will continue to be in the factual, documentary, nonfiction space.

TV REAL: You are attracting amazing talent for your originals in both scripted and non-scripted.
MONROE: Amazing talent. Storytellers have always been the lifeblood and heart and soul of National Geographic. A big part of our shift to this more premium strategy was all about working with best-in-class creative talent. The creative talent that we have behind our current and upcoming programming, scripted or unscripted, is pretty extraordinary. In Genius we had Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and the incomparable Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. We’re working with Darren Aronofsky on a huge unscripted science series, One Strange Rock, along with Jane Root and Nutopia. We worked with Leonardo DiCaprio on Before the Flood. We’re working with Morgan Freeman on the spinoff The Story of Us, Peter Kosminsky on The State, Neil deGrasse Tyson on his series StarTalk and Mike Medavoy on the upcoming The Long Road Home. And two other talents that have huge U.S. appeal and hoping to gain global recognition through their new series: Katie Couric, who brought us Gender Revolution, and Martha Raddatz, author of The Long Road Home, which is our next scripted series that has an incredible ensemble cast featuring Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter, Kate Bosworth and Jeremy Sisto.

This talent roster speaks to two things. One is the power of this brand, which is an incredible calling card in the creative community because it stands for quality, it stands for authenticity and people like their storytelling to be associated with a strong, premium brand. That’s number one. And I think it also speaks to the more creatively ambitious strategy that we are pursuing. As we have expanded our drive to work with the very best in front of and behind [the camera], I have found that the very best share a passion for this brand and really want to work with us, which has been incredibly exciting and inspiring.

TV REAL: What are your plans for more documentary feature films, like Before the Flood with Leonardo DiCaprio?
MONROE: Following the success of Before the Flood (which was seen by over 60 million people), we launched National Geographic Documentary Films. Since then, we’ve released four films and have two more in the works. With our feature docs, it’s the same approach from a creative talent perspective as all of our shows. We want to work with the very best filmmakers in the business, the visionaries of documentary filmmaking. We worked with Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions and award-winning director Marina Zenovich on Water & Power, an exposé on California’s water crisis, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. We released three films at the Tribeca Film Festival, including From the Ashes, which looks into the complexities of the coal industry. We also had Hell on Earth from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sebastian Junger and his Emmy-winning partner Nick Quested, which presents a gripping, disturbing look at the fall of Syria and the rise of ISIS. We also did LA 92, with [producers] Simon and Jonathan Chinn, and [directors] TJ Martin and Dan Lindsay. It was a look back at the riots that happened in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict 25 years ago. It won an Emmy for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking. No talking heads. All pieced together from archival footage and camcorder footage and news and radio broadcasts. Brett Morgen has been called the “mad scientist of documentary filmmaking.” His credits include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Crossfire Hurricane, about the Rolling Stones, and The Kid Stays in the Picture. With JANE, we discovered over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage in the archives of National Geographic about Jane Goodall’s life and expeditions from the 1960s. Brett did an incredible job putting a film together with this archival footage and mixing that with present-day interviews with Jane reflecting on her life and her work. And then we’re also working on Solo, which is from Parkes/MacDonald—Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who are big Hollywood producers—and the directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. It is about Alex Honnold, who is the best free solo rock climber in the world. Recently he completed the first-ever solo climb of El Capitan, without any ropes, without any nets. We have been filming with him for the past year.

Our strategy overall with these is to do a few a year that are aligned with our brand, that are from the very best filmmakers. Feature documentaries were something that National Geographic did a while ago. We produced Restrepo with Sebastian Junger and it won the [Grand Jury: Documentary prize] at Sundance, was nomin­ated for an Oscar, and it did incredibly well from a ratings perspective. For whatever reason, we abandoned the space. But as part of our quest to become the world’s leading destination for premium content around science and adventure and exploration, feature documentaries have a rightful place in our strategy. We’re excited that we’ve been able to drum up interest in the filmmaking community to come work with us.

TV REAL: What most excites you about what’s happening in the documentary space today?
MONROE: It’s the best time in the world to be a documentary filmmaker. There are so many outlets for it. I also think that the world is sort of a crazy place and it’s great to create entertaining programming. There’s a place for really important, provocative storytelling that you do through documentaries. That’s why I believe National Geographic should be pursuing it. There are so many filmmakers and so many people within the creative community, even talent whose background has predominantly been in scripted, who are interested in telling documentary stories. That is tremendously exciting.

TV REAL: What are some of your other upcoming highlights?
MONROE: There are a couple of new shows that I’m super excited about. The first is our next scripted series, The Long Road Home. Another one is One Strange Rock, which is Darren Aronofsky’s first foray into unscripted and into television. We’ve paired Darren, who is the creative visionary for One Strange Rock, and his company Protozoa Pictures, with Jane Root and Nutopia. She has assembled some of the best natural-history and science storytellers in the world to tell this story, which, at its heart, is really about how incredibly strange this rock that we call planet Earth is. So it’s earth science meets natural history, and it’s visually breathtaking. As you can imagine with Darren Aronofsky at the helm, it’s a visual tour de force. I’m super excited about the return of MARS and Genius. For Genius we’re profiling the life of Pablo Picasso. And the other series that I’m excited about is Chain of Command.