Leonardo DiCaprio isn't offering any easy solutions, he's not cheerleading a new PSA, and he's not reading off cue cards. The new National Geographic documentary Before the Flood follows the Academy Award-winning actor's journey to desperately find some optimism for the planet, amid his own pessimism toward our ability to save ourselves and the earth from climate change-induced disaster. This is less Naked and Afraid, more Educated and Concerned.
That shift in tone may initially seem less sexy, less likely to grab you by the eyeballs, but it represents a larger change within National Geographic itself, from chasing reality TV ratings with shows like . . . well, Chasing UFOs and Diggers, to programming that more accurately reflects the reputation for smart science and cutting-edge exploration its built over the last century with its magazine.
National Geographic Partners CEO Declan Moore, a 20-year veteran with the company who most recently served as its chief media officer, says that they recognized a growing appetite for high-production values, engaging storytelling, delivered in exciting ways. "Why not build around that?" says Moore. "That then led to saying, okay, let’s look at ways in which we can reposition the brand, in addition to changing the product, in terms of the priorities in the programming."
It also coincided with another re-examination of the business, when last year 21st Century Fox increased its existing holdings in the brand with a $725 million deal that added the magazine and other assets to its existing partnership with National Geographic's U.S. and international TV channels.
One of the brand's first series following the deal was The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, which debuted in April this year and became the channel's highest rated series ever. "If you were to call the space we’re in as ‘specialty entertainment,' there are other brands in there who are also growing—BBC, the Economist, Monocle—that reflects the growing appetite among consumers, particularly millennials and gen Z, for quality, smart content," says Moore.
You could argue the dude watching Chasing UFOs is a huge National Geographic fan, but odds are the brand's most passionate fans are those who grew up reading the magazine, associating it with some the smartest, most interesting stories on the planet. Moore says the content and conversation around newer shows like The Story of God, Years of Living Dangerously, StarTalk, Origins, and now Before the Flood represents both the brand's desire to get back to its roots, but also the increased interest in smart content that's still entertaining.
"There is huge interest, and that’s a great thing for society," he says. "Look at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Startalk—he’s a superstar with millennials and gen Zs. It’s not an age thing for people to be interested in this kind of stuff, if you make it fascinating. The curiosity gene is in all of us, and if you feed and satisfy that curiosity, that’s a tremendous opportunity to make a difference and create value."
With the new Fox deal, the National Geographic Channel dropped the "Channel" to further indicate its move to more closely align with the magazine and National Geographic Society. Moore says the opportunity for cross-platform stories has never been better.
"In the past, there was this issue that it was difficult for the magazine and other platforms to fully embrace the channel because the programming experience was very different," he says. "Now that it’s fully reflective, and they’re excited at what they’re seeing coming through—Mars, Years of Living Dangerously, Origins—that now it’s a very easy and genuine thing to embrace and make that connectivity, so that bond is that much stronger."
One of the biggest challenges the brand faces is still fostering that collective culture around the brand, one that not long ago operated its various divisions pretty separately. "It all comes down to having the people and teams who come to work every single day inspired to take on these brand challenges as much as the explorers and scientists in the field," says Moore. "It’s about developing a common internal culture around the brand, whereas in the past we were arranged by product silos. Now we’re moving toward the idea we all own what’s on TV tonight, it’s not just the TV people. We all own what’s on the cover of the magazine this month. We all own our publishing program. So it’s developing that collective sense of yes, ownership and participation in what we do, and then looking to inject an acceleration into the speed at which we do it because the world continues to move faster and faster."
It’s easy to say they need to expand this brand, to be strong on social, have a portfolio of events, or whatever it is, but Moore says it’s all about how you control that and make sure it’s consistent across all of those extensions. "To a certain extent, and this is a truism I think. Yes, there may be silos, but what you’re trying to do is slide the spectrum to the point where you’re reserving the specialization and focus that needs to take place at the tip of the arrow, then you look to centralize the general capabilities," he says. "You want people feeling that they’re part of one thing—so no matter if you're working on the magazine, or developing new business, or in IT, you want to connect the storytelling we do with everybody’s overall purpose. That’s what we’re trying to do."
Another brand challenge Moore talks about is how well National Geographic ties the works of the National Geographic Society to its content. If good is the new cool, then the new overall brand alignment should help, but Moore says they need to do a better job of telling people that 27% of its proceeds go back to the Society, which goes directly into funding science exploration, education, and conservation.
"It’s a virtuous cycle that I think is very unique in media," says Moore. "There are B-Corps out there—the Patagonias, Ben & Jerry’s—who have a portion of their funds going toward important social responsibility areas, and I think we’re in that same boat. Twenty-seven percent is a hefty portion, and we actually are looking at doing a better job at communicating that, and telling that story. Not in a needy way, but about connecting the excitement that we’re telling great stories, to enlist people in becoming a part of that, to help us do something bigger, have a bigger impact."