clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How 128-year-old National Geographic is trying to build a hot TV channel from scratch

Can the legacy publisher become the HBO of travel and adventure?

Asa Mathat for Vox Media
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

National Geographic is 128 years old. It’s also a household name. But none of that guarantees success in a media world where print is on the outs.

So the legendary publisher is following in the footsteps of HBO, Netflix and Amazon by making a giant bet on creating its own TV series to reinvent and modernize its brand.

“We’re radically changing our programming strategy,” Courteney Monroe, the National Geographic Channel CEO, told Peter Kafka at Recode’s Code Media conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, Calif., on Tuesday.

The first example of this is the forthcoming “Genius,” starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in the first season of a series focusing on the lives of famous innovators. The channel is working with Hollywood luminaries like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to get it off the ground.

More splashy series will follow as part of Monroe’s vision for the channel to make “fewer, bigger, bolder, much more creatively ambitious” bets on topics of adventure, science and travel. A fresh $725 million from majority owner 21st Century Fox helps.

The programming change is a departure from what the channel was working on before Monroe took over as CEO, when it featured lower-budget reality shows set in places like Alaska targeting male viewers.

“I don’t think people come to National Geographic for that,” she said. “I think there’s a higher expectation.”

Also: A lot of competition. Monroe should know. She was previously a marketing exec at HBO. Amazon, Netflix and others are also investing heavily in premium series.

There is also some low-hanging fruit to tackle. National Geographic has 69 million Instagram followers, the most of any non-celebrity account except Instagram itself.

But, to date, it’s been a brand-builder, not a money-maker. Monroe acknowledged that should change.

“There’s no question we want to crack the code of how to drive revenue.”

This article originally appeared on