Smithsonian Networks’ David Royle

David Royle, the executive VP of programming and production at Smithsonian Networks, tells TV Real about launching the channel in Singapore and building out the network’s global footprint, along with discussing the current programming strategy and plans in the 4K space.

Having cemented its reputation as a destination for first-rate nonfiction programming in the U.S., Smithsonian Channel has set its sights on expanding the network in the international marketplace. Already available in Canada, Smithsonian made its foray outside of North America with a recent launch on StarHub TV in Singapore.

***Image***TV REAL: Why was Singapore an important market to bring the channel into?
ROYLE: Singapore is an excellent fit for our target demo. It’s a well-educated market, it’s a pretty affluent market, with a considerable English-speaking population. That made it a totally natural first stepping stone for us into the international television market.

We also needed a good partner, and we’re delighted to be launched there by StarHub, which gives us a strong foothold in the Asian market. Quite frankly, I think this is going to be the first of what we expect to be many international launches outside of North America. We launched first in Canada with Blue Ant, and that’s been very successful for us. This is perhaps a more adventurous step outside the confines of the North American continent.

It’s a very natural next move for us. Our programming sells all over the world, from Russia to Australia, the U.K. to Korea. It’s now being shown by broadcasters globally. So we’re very bullish about launching channels. We know that there is an appetite for the type of programming that we’re making. We also think that there’s a dearth of it now because of the rush toward reality programming, even though it may be winding down somewhat. Now many nonfiction channels are moving toward more high-end nonfiction drama. This all leaves a very big niche for quality, somewhat more traditional nonfiction programming. People really want to understand their world and they want to do it in a way that’s entertaining and credible.

TV REAL: What is the programming mix for the channel in Singapore?
ROYLE: Our channel programming really travels well internationally. We’ve launched with programs like Million Dollar American Princesses. [This show has] no direct Singaporean or Asian connection but is just damn good television! [Laughs] People on a global scale watched and loved the TV drama Downton AbbeyMillion Dollar American Princesses is playing off that popular culture.

We’ve long produced programs about Asian topics and with Asian partners. We launched with a program called Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin, which is about the Korean War and centers on an extraordinary Chinese-American man who was at the Chosin Reservoir when the Marine Corps was surrounded by the Chinese Army. He was key in leading their breakout. It’s a story of identity, a story of war set in Asia and it’s fascinating. It obviously has a strong Asian angle.

We’ve worked with EBS in Korea on their wonderful specials about Burma and Angkor Wat. We’ve done programs on Komodo dragons and other Asian natural history. Natural history is a genre that is very popular in Asia, so that’s a priority.

But our programming mix will be very varied. Just like audiences in America want to learn stories about other parts of the world, audiences in Asia are both sophisticated and extremely curious. You can take a series like Aerial America, which has sold to every continent in the world, and that will be on Singapore’s Smithsonian Channel.

TV REAL: What’s the strategy for continuing to roll the channel out internationally?
ROYLE: We expect that the channel launch in Singapore will expand awareness and will undoubtedly help us secure carriage agreements with additional operators in the region. This is a first step into Asia, and we anticipate having a bigger presence there in the years to come.

On a global scale, we’re going market by market. We’ll go where the opportunities are, where we can find the right partners who understand the power of our brand and the strength and consistency of our programming vision.

TV REAL: Overall, what’s guiding the current programming strategy for the channel?
ROYLE: At Smithsonian Channel we have a very clear sense of who we are. When we look at some of the zig-zagging that’s gone on with U.S. nonfiction channels, we feel really vindicated by our commitment to true nonfiction. We’ve believed for some time that a big gap has opened up on American television for story-led, entertaining factual [programming] that also has integrity. That’s what we’re focused on. We’re a brand where curiosity lives, inspiration strikes and wonders never cease. Our programming strategy is quite simple: it’s to look for programming that is dramatic, beautifully shot and has great storytelling in the areas that are at the heart of our brand, which are air and space, history, science, nature and pop culture.

Our programming strategy is quite simple: it’s to look for programming that is dramatic, beautifully shot and has great storytelling in the areas that are at the heart of our brand, which are air and space, history, science, nature and pop culture.

TV REAL: What are you looking for with regard to commissions?
ROYLE: History is a very important area for us. We’re always looking for new ways of interpreting history and bringing history to a bigger audience. We have a new series that we’re launching called The Lost Tapes, which comes from Tom Jennings, a very talented L.A.-based producer who created MLK: The Assassination Tapes for us. What I love about what we’re doing with Tom is that it feels to me like it’s almost TV for the internet age. Tom takes footage that’s been shot at a particular moment in history, and he retells the story of that time without any narration or interviews; he uses photographs, film footage, radio and TV reports. It has a visceral, you-are-there-at-that-moment feel to it. It gets away from the historical programming that I think young people in particular don’t always want, which is programming that’s lecturing at you. Instead, you’re plunged into the middle of an event. We’ve just broadcast The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor, and next we’ll be doing The Lost Tapes: The L.A. Riots. The material that Tom is finding is just riveting. It really has you on the edge of your seat. Hollywood couldn’t make up these stories; they’re infused with drama. We feel it is a new and very distinctive approach to telling history. The digitization that’s taken place with archives in the last few years has meant that you can access material that’s been hidden for years and years. Tom is discovering new things to show people, and that’s exciting.

We’re always looking for big anniversary programs. I don’t just mean the obvious ones, like the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. But also the ones that relate to popular culture. We’re doing the real story of Jesus of Nazareth; we’ve got exclusive access to Franco Zeffirelli’s television series, which has its 40th anniversary next year. This was one of the biggest events in television history; 90 million people watched it when it went out for the first time on American TV. We’ve persuaded Robert Powell, whose portrayal of Jesus was considered to be a groundbreaking television portrayal, to go back to the Holy Land for us. It weaves Zeffirelli’s amazing film with the story of Robert’s trip as he analyzes and explores the historical truth of Jesus.

We love it when people come up with new approaches to natural history. We have a new series out called Polar Bear Town, which is all about Churchill—in Manitoba, Canada—a tiny little town where every year large numbers of polar bears migrate. The town has developed a complete tourist industry around the polar bears, and tourists flock there to see them. Polar Bear Town has a tinge of the reality genre to it but it’s done very carefully so that it’s really about the polar bears and the relationship between them and the people in the town and it [examines] the difficult relationship between people and wildlife. That series came from Canada’s Merit Motion Pictures and Earth Touch in South Africa.

Earth Touch has done another series for us that really is a new take on natural history, Crazy Monster. We did a pilot that is Crazy Monster Frogs and I’ve just been looking at Crazy Monster Bats, and we have Crazy Monster Fangs. The series is slightly tongue in cheek and at the same time, and this is always key to Smithsonian programming, it’s grounded in veracity and reality. That’s the hallmark of who we are. But we certainly want producers who are thinking of pitching us to know that we’re not just looking for programming that is serious. Far from it! We want programming that is entertaining and fun and that draws audiences in.

We also look for new breakthrough stories. Earlier this year we had a film called The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima from Lucky 8 in New York. That was a retelling of the famous flag raising on the top of Iwo Jima that [was the basis for] the Clint Eastwood movie Flags of Our Fathers. The important thing here was that Lucky 8 had a completely new breakthrough in the interpretation of who was in the famous photo. The Marines, the U.S. government, and even historians had got it wrong all these years; there was a missing flag raiser. We were able to identify that person. We love that sort of [program] where we take a story that you think you know and add a twist that brings a new interpretation and understanding to it. That is something we really leap at.

We have a new series coming out called The Real Mad Men of Advertising. Smithsonian [National Museum of American History] has just received, in the last year or so, the Mad Men collection as that TV show came to an end. This is a series launching early in 2017 that looks into the real history of advertising but also entwines it with Mad Men. It’s a really fun, pop-culture type of look at an extraordinary creative force in American history—advertising over the past half-century.

TV REAL: Does what you’re looking for in acquisitions differ at all?
ROYLE: I don’t think there’s much difference in terms of what we look for between acquisitions and commissions. Our audiences don’t care! They don’t know or care about the difference between an acquisition, a commission and a co-pro. We’re always looking for the same sorts of things. The storytelling is the first thing we’re always looking for. We look for something that feels like it’s exclusive in terms of what it delivers. It has to be in our wheelhouse of nonfiction programming genres.

TV REAL: Will Smithsonian continue to increase its commitment to 4K?
ROYLE: We launched as an HD channel, with 5.1 surround sound, and that was key to us getting going in the U.S. market. It was at a time when there was very little HD out there, very few people doing 5.1 surround sound and it was how we started. We felt that we could become a leader in providing the ultimate viewing experience. We’ve always wanted to combine factual integrity not only with strong, dramatic storytelling but also with an astonishingly strong visual viewing experience. It’s been a very natural move for us to go rapidly into 4K production.

We are now doing all of our original commissioning, and most of our co-production commissioning, in 4K. We’ve probably moved more quickly into this space than any other American channel. We are switching rapidly into full 4K production and I would think that when the time comes we’ll be one of the earliest channels that will be in a position to launch fully as a 4K channel. That is our ambition and our intent.

4K is a very logical place for us to move to. You’re seeing this explosion of people purchasing 4K TV sets. People are going to be craving television programs that take advantage of the new technology, and there aren’t enough [producers] doing it yet. We want to offer the ultimate 4K experience.