During a conversation on Thursday morning at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, talked about how National Geographic is breaking through in today’s market, the benefits of 21st Century Fox’s long-standing partnership with National Geographic, the right way to think about A-list talent and the opportunities for women in the TV industry, among other topics. That same evening, Courteney shared remarks at a dinner co-hosted by 21CF at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh celebrating women in media, with special guest National Geographic photographer Amy Toensing.
National Geographic’s new journey
During Courteney’s session, moderator Jane Root, founder and CEO of TV production company Nutopia, asked Courteney about the risks of National Geographic’s new strategy. Courteney, who worked at HBO for 14 years prior to joining National Geographic, recounted a call she received from FOX Networks Group Chairman and CEO Peter Rice about six months after she transitioned from CMO to CEO in 2014. Peter asked her what the HBO version of National Geographic would look like. “It was the most exhilarating phone call I’ve ever gotten,” Courteney said.
National Geographic got out of the “tonnage game,” she said. The goal was to focus on quality over quantity.
The new vision for National Geographic is to “break away from the pack and become the world’s leading destination for premium content around genres that make sense for our brand, be it science, be it adventure, be it exploration.”
How National Geographic thinks about A-list talent
While many of National Geographic’s latest shows and series have featured A-list talent and well-known names, this doesn’t mean its philosophy is driven by attaching big names to every project.
“That has been misconstrued in the marketplace because we’ve gotten pitches like: ‘Here’s my idea. And oh, by the way, we’ll just get this talent attached as an executive producer.’ That’s not what it’s about.”
Courteney explained that there’s always a genuine creative reason for every big name attached to a National Geographic project, and the goal is always to ensure that National Geographic can work with the best people to tell the best stories.
She shared a story from this year’s National Geographic upfront presentation, which featured the likes of Ron Howard (executive producer and director of “Genius”), Geoffrey Rush (“Genius”) and Morgan Freeman (“The Story of God with Morgan Freeman”).
“The neatest thing for us all to see was that the audience was equally if not more interested in meeting the astronauts from our upcoming series ‘One Strange Rock,’ than any of the Hollywood stars,” Courteney said. “And, in fact, all of the Hollywood stars couldn’t get enough of meeting the astronauts. I thought, ‘This is a great National Geographic moment. It restores my faith in humanity.’”
21CF’s partnership with National Geographic
When asked about 21CF’s partnership with National Geographic, Courteney noted that the two companies have been partners for 20 years, since the beginning of the TV network. 21CF’s increased its investment in National Geographic nearly two years ago created the new joint venture National Geographic Partners, which now includes all media assets under the National Geographic umbrella (e.g., print and digital magazine, travel and expedition business, children’s media, etc.).
“The Murdochs are lovers of this brand,” she said. “The reason we are able to pursue this bold and ambitious strategy is because of the increased investment and the belief in the power of this brand that they have.”
Courteney added that while National Geographic may not be the biggest part of 21CF’s portfolio of brands from a financial perspective, “we enjoy an outsized level of engagement from [21CF CEO] James Murdoch and [21CF Executive Chairman] Lachlan Murdoch because of their belief in this brand.”
Social media prowess
National Geographic is the No. 1 non-celebrity brand on Instagram and social media at large, reaching more than 350 million people on social platforms. This huge social media presence, along with National Geographic’s other platforms, allows the company to have a 360-degree perspective from the outset of any new programming.
“It’s no longer about aggregating audience on television. It’s [about how] we drive engagement and audience across all of these different platforms,” she said.
Though National Geographic is in the upper echelons of social media, it doesn’t mean Courteney doesn’t have her sights set on celebrities that top those lists. Noting that the Kardashians and Selena Gomez sit above National Geographic in the social media world, Courteney said, “If I do nothing else right, I’m determined to unseat Selena, much to the chagrin of my daughter.”
Being a woman in the TV industry
When Jane posed a question about how much farther women have to go in the TV industry, noting that 71 percent of executives in the industry are men, Courteney responded by sharing that the majority of the executive team at National Geographic are women. Nevertheless, “There’s no question as you look across the landscape that we could do better,” particularly in creative decisions on who showrunners and directors are, she said.
Courteney also recalled her astonishment at the number of emails she received from young women congratulating her on her CEO role and saying that they were glad to see a woman and mother in the position. “Getting that type of feedback was really interesting and actually made me feel this sense of responsibility to be thinking about this in a way that I hadn’t before.”
‘Women in Media’ dinner
Later in the day, Courteney co-hosted with 21CF a dinner to celebrate incredible women in the TV and digital industry, with special guest National Geographic photographer Amy Toensing, whose work was exhibited at the dinner. Delivering some opening remarks, Courteney said she was pleased to see females in leadership positions across the industry. “In fact, at National Geographic, two-thirds of the executive team are women, which reflects a commitment by 21CF for a diverse and skilled leadership team.”
She discussed how the partnership between 21CF and National Geographic in the form of National Geographic Partners, which reinvests 27 percent of proceeds to the nonprofit National Geographic Society, inspires her. “It’s not every day that you can feel so grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the world through thought-provoking and amazing programming.”
Guests included showrunner Emma Frost; Anne Mensah, Head of Drama at Sky; Kim Shillinglaw, Director of Factual, Endemol Shine UK; Cat Lewis, CEO, Joint Creative Director and Executive Producer, Nine Lives Media; Marc Samuelson, Chair of BAFTA Film Committee; and Simon and Jonathan Chinn, Founders of Lightbox Entertainment.
During her remarks, Courteney highlighted a quote from Jane Goodall, inspired by National Geographic’s upcoming feature documentary “Jane”:
“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.”
Courteney concluded: “I challenge us all to never lose sight of that idea. Whether in your business, on behalf of the planet, or in support of women in media, may Jane Goodall serve as our guide and as our inspiration.”