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National Geographic Channels' walk on the wilder side

National Geographic Channels' aim to 'shake things up' includes a pre-election airing of 'SEAL Team Six' and an upcoming end-times programming stunt.

November 17, 2012|By T.L. Stanley
  • This still photo from "SEAL Team Six: The Killing of Osama bin Laden" shows a dramatization of the team after killing Osama Bin Laden during Operation Neptune's Spear on May 2, 2011, in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
This still photo from "SEAL Team Six: The Killing of Osama bin Laden"… (Ursula Coyote / AFP / Getty…)

Is David Lyle, chief executive of National Geographic Channels, being coy when he says he didn't expect a major dust-up over his decision to air the movie "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden" a few days ahead of the hotly contested U.S. presidential election?

Or is he just crafty, using a film that quickly became a political football as an attention-grabbing centerpiece of his fall schedule?

Despite some critics' charge that the film could give President Obama an unfair boost, Lyle said he had no second thoughts about showing it on a Sunday night two days before Americans were to go to the polls. The movie scored big ratings for the network, averaging 2.7 million viewers, which made it this year's most popular broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.

"It surprises me that some people get anxious that a movie on our channel could change the political destiny of a country of 300 million people," Lyle said.

As for all the publicity it's generated for the small niche network? Sure, Lyle will take it, saying slyly, "It's good to be talked about."

Matt Sharp, executive producer of NatGeo's highest-rated series, "Doomsday Preppers," said "SEAL Team Six" is well suited to Lyle's outsized personality and strategy for the network.

"He's brought new energy and new life to that network," said Sharp, founder and president of Sharp Entertainment. "He's willing to take those swings with shows that people get on Twitter and say, 'Hey, you gotta check this out.'"

In other words, it might be the National Geographic your dad would recognize, but with a lot more pizazz.

The Australian-born Lyle, a 25-year veteran of unscripted TV, said he aims to stay true to the iconic roots set down by the renowned National Geographic Society by producing "TV with some take-away smarts." (The channel, available in about 83 million homes, is a joint venture of National Geographic and the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox Cable Networks.)

But he also wants to continue tapping into the zeitgeist. Under his watch, the network has scored the highest ratings in its history with the apocalyptic show "Doomsday Preppers" and the New England fishing odyssey "Wicked Tuna."

"Doomsday Preppers," which got a special Season 2 preview right after "SEAL Team Six," drew 4.3 million viewers for its first-season premiere and helped close the gender gap on the traditionally male-skewing channel.

The series, following people who stockpile weapons, food and supplies for what they believe are end times, became a cult hit and found its way into the mainstream through shout-outs from "The Colbert Report," Mad magazine and "The Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence.

The channel will release a "Doomsday Preppers" mobile app later this fall, which Lyle jokingly described as "a fine gift for the holiday season."

Hoping to draft off "Preppers'" popularity, NatGeo plans a two-night end-of-the-world programming stunt in early December. Many preppers, and 15% of the world's population, according to Reuters, think the apocalypse is coming on Dec. 21.

The event will have the same tongue-in-cheek tone that has already worked for promotions around "Preppers." (See: Season 1 ads modeled after the classic "American Gothic" painting, but with the couple outfitted in gas masks). It will feature alarmingly named specials such as "The Mayan Apocalypse 2012" and "Evacuate Earth."

The current crop of high-profile programming may seem a far cry from nature documentaries and science specials, though the channel still offers fare such as "Alien Deep," "Big Cat Week" and "Martian Mega Rover."

But it also has much flashier programming these days, such as "Rocket City Rednecks," about Southern rocket scientists, and the law-enforcement series "Alaska State Troopers." A behind-the-scenes look at Felix Baumgartner's recent record-breaking free fall from space ran Sunday and attracted a respectable audience for the network of more than 800,000.

Coming next year: "Killing Lincoln," a two-hour movie based on the bestselling book by Bill O'Reilly, and a series about Air Force combat rescuers in Afghanistan. A miniseries called "The '80s" will go beyond clip show, Lyle said, to look at technology, culture and trends that bubbled up during that decade.

Being brash sometimes comes with a price, and NatGeo has been criticized for its series on the Hutterites sect (religious elders didn't approve) and for "American Gypsies," which followed a family distinguished mostly by its decibel level.

Under pressure from online protesters, the channel dumped a trophy hunter participant in the upcoming competition show "Ultimate Survivor Alaska."

Florida naturalist Tim Martell wrote a petition on demanding that Melissa Bachman be dropped from the show. After it gathered about 13,000 signatures in 24 hours, NatGeo execs decided to excise Bachman from the already-filming series.

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