< The Multiple Personalities of National Geographic


Friday, March 30, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  When talk periodically turns to zeroing out public television, an argument sometimes offered is that commercial cable offers a wide variety of educational programming on Discovery, The History Channel, and so on. A compelling point, except that those channels, in their quest for audience, have long since turned from education to pulp non-fiction. Such programs as “Pawn Stars” on History and “American Chopper” on Discovery are ratings successes, but Nova they are not.


And sometimes what they teach is just plain wrong, such as the case with the pair of new programs, one called “American Digger” on the testosterone-fueled Spike TV and the other “Diggers” on NatGeo, the National Geographic Channel. Both shows follow treasure hunters as they unearth valuable relics, with the help of metal detectors. Their techniques appall archaeologists. Fred Limp, president of the Society for American Archaeology, said the TV diggers behave like looters.

FRED LIMP:  If these activities were carried out on federal lands, what they’re doing would be a felony. They’re interested in the objects for their financial value, not for what they tell us about America’s past.

BOB GARFIELD:  Both shows prompted you to write to the producers, but you thought that the Spike TV version was – a lot more careless and haphazard.

FRED LIMP:  Both of these shows deal with individuals who are using metal detectors to find historic objects. In particular though on the Spike TV, that’s been followed up by the use of back hoes, explosive devices and other things to dig up these objects and then to sell them. In the “Diggers” show, it’s a little bit less invasive.

BOB GARFIELD:  On the other hand, you singled out the NatGeo Channel show for trading on the prestige and reputation of the National Geographic Society.

FRED LIMP:  Well, to be quite honest, we hold the National Geographic to a higher standard than we do to Spike TV. The Geographic is a, a wonderful organization, with a tremendous history of supporting science and preservation activities. And so, in that sense, we were more concerned.


On the other hand, I must say once we called to their attention this issue, they responded in a very positive way. And we are working with them now to develop guidelines for responsible metal detecting. Our sense is, is that they perhaps honestly didn’t really understand all of the complex issues and were taken by surprise with the reaction.

BOB GARFIELD:  Fred, thank you so much.

FRED LIMP:  Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:  Fred Limp is president of the Society for American Archaeology.


National Geographic Society’s CEO John Fahey says that, in fact, National Geographic was surprised by the reaction from archaeologists to its show “Diggers.”

JOHN FAHEY: Quite frankly, I think we were all perhaps a little bit naïve that this was, in fact, such a hot topic for archaeologists. After, you know, we’ve had a chance to talk to many of the organizations and some of the people, we understand why they feel that way and we are sensitive to that.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, it – it’s not just the “Diggers. On your Channel, NatGeo Channel, you’ve women in prison, you’ve got adult men in diapers, with bottles and pacifiers, high-priced hookers, Nazis. Has NatGeo, the Channel, strayed from the editorial mission of National Geographic, the magazine published by The Society for the last hundred and – almost fifty years?

 JOHN FAHEY:  It’s unfortunate, in a way, that the Channel cannot successfully reflect exactly what the National Geographic Magazine is. I think the audience for each proves to be very different, and to be successful we will have to have a mix of shows that we think are spot on brand, spot on mission, and there’ll be a variety of other shows there that may not appear to be on mission, but are the types of programs that’ll allow this Channel to survive and thrive so that we can do other things in that portfolio that will clearly be much more what one would expect from National Geographic.

BOB GARFIELD:  Brazilian women in prison subsidizing voyages to the bottom of the sea. The Society is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. My understanding is the Channel is a for-profit, a joint venture between you and News Corporation.

JOHN FAHEY:  News Corporation has 70 percent, we have 30 percent.

BOB GARFIELD:  Who makes the editorial calls?

JOHN FAHEY:  The editorial calls are made really between us, meaning the National Geographic Society, and the management of the Channel. So, for instance, the “Diggers” show, our colleagues, our partners from Fox had no idea that that show was going to be on the air. They were not involved in any of the discussions. I can understand your point, picking out certain of the – of the programs that, quite frankly, we’re not very proud of today.


Right now we have new management at the Channel. They are in the process of really looking at the entire slate of programming and working very closely, by the way, with the magazine people here. So we’re going to try to get a much larger percentage of that entire portfolio to reflect the principles and mission of National Geographic.

BOB GARFIELD:  One final thing. Do you or the members of the National Geographic Society or the employees in-house, do you have some sort of like lurid-o-meter that [LAUGHS], you know, once the needle is buried in the red, you just say no, no, this is – this is just too far?  How, how do you make those calls?

JOHN FAHEY:  We do have a Standards and Practices Group that reviews all of the programming in advance. And we have the right to veto shows. We don’t want to exercise that right too often. Yeah, there are a lot of people in the Society who pay a great deal of attention to this.


And we know when a show has clearly gone too far astray from the brand. And that’s why we have a new management team in place at the Channel, and that’s why we’re trying to get back closer to the brand.

We have programs that have been on our air, “Great Migrations,” and we have programs that have programs that are coming up,  “Untamed America” and so on, that are absolutely terrific. So we’re trying to get this right and, you know, we would acknowledge we’re not exactly where we’d like to be right now.

BOB GARFIELD:  Well John, thank you so much.

JOHN FAHEY:  It’s a pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:  John Fahey is the chairman and CEO of the National Geographic Society.


It’s not hard to see why Fahey and his colleagues aren’t entirely satisfied. Right now, if you watch the NatGeo Channel, you might see “Navaho Cops,” a show similar to the Fox TV series “Cops” but on an Indian reservation. Or you might see something like this show, about lesbian love in a Brazilian prison.



NARRATOR:  Through the bars of her cell, Elini serenades Lucimara for months on end. Elini wants more than just casual dates with Lucimara. She wants a live-in lover.


BOB GARFIELD:  NatGeo Channel CEO David Lyle says the National Geographic Society and its magazine have always explored a wide range of topics.

DAVID LYLE:  National Geographic, in the 124 years that it’s existed, has prided itself on looking at not just natural history but the world and everything in it. The Channel draws on that proud tradition to have a balance of programming that may look at different cultures, different aspects of the world, whether that be from looking at Navahos or what’s happening in Brazil.

BOB GARFIELD:  There’s reality, and then there’s something called blue chip, which I suppose is in tracking geese migrations and, you know, Jacques Cousteau in the Galapagos. And then there’s the pulpier stuff. What – what will be the balance on your watch between blue chip and reality?

DAVID LYLE:  I think blue chip is sometimes code, meaning very expensive. Some of the programs that we’re proudest of have taken four or five years, things like “Untamed Americas” or “Titanic” or “Kingdom of the Ocean.” Each of those costs a fortune and took a long time to make. We will always have a balance too, with contemporary storytelling, where we go after fascinating characters and a driving narrative, so that our viewers can have a look into extraordinary worlds, and then often when you look at these extraordinary worlds, you find that the people in them, whether they be the Amish or, or gypsies out of New York, they are strangely relatable.

BOB GARFIELD:  When we spoke to John Fahey, he acknowledged that some of the fare on the National Geographic cable channels really does not correspond with, with the Society’s world view. Were you brought in to fix that, to create more audience? What was your brief?

DAVID LYLE:  My brief is to make the best commercial TV channel for National Geographic. Our Channel can never be the Magazine. It shares many values with the magazines. We want to have authenticity, we want to have balance, but we cannot be the TV version of the Magazine. The two mediums/media are different. I certainly and unashamedly want to make it entertaining. But, I don’t want to have entertainment without substance.

BOB GARFIELD:  If I am a member of the National Geographic Society and I’m – you know, I’m 104 years old, and I’ve got –


-14 tons of old magazines in my attic threatening to crush me at any moment [LAUGHS] -


-and I tune in, will I feel that the shows are compelling or, or a betrayal of the high toned character that I’ve come to expect from the brand over all these years?

DAVID LYLE:  You’ll find them fascinating. They’ll open your mind to different places, different societies. But the main channel still wants to have an audience that’s 25 to 54 – that’s true. We’re in commercial television, so we do look at the demographics. So your 104-year-old enthusiast may be a tiny bit out of our spectrum.

BOB GARFIELD:  Mm. I guess what I’m asking you, and this is a slippery slope question, if you follow the logical trend from geese migration to “Diggers” and to “Doomsday Preppers” can we be very far from American nudists, you know on the way to bikini explorers? When does “Bikini Explorers” air on NatGeo?

DAVID LYLE:  I think all our shows need to be authentic. I pride ourselves on the fact that all the things that we cover are happening before the camera is turned up. So I’m not going to stage sensational events. I’m going to record parts of the world as it happens. And I think it can be popular television and entertaining, and right in the National Geographic sphere.

BOB GARFIELD:  David, thank you very much.

DAVID LYLE:  Happy to do it any old time.

BOB GARFIELD:  David Lyle is CEO of the National Geographic Channel.



John Fahey, Fred Limp and David Lyle

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Bob Garfield