StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Disney+ / Nat Geo – Streamers & Legacy Networks: Opportunities for Producers! Transcript #1/3

Discover in the transcript the detailed data and strategic analysis shared by Dan Salerno and Liz Levenson in their webinar covering programming strategies by three major unscripted platform groups.

Their targets: Nat Geo / Disney+, Discovery / Max, and A+E Networks.

Watch the webinar here.

Following is the transcript for Nat Geo / Disney+. 

Dan Salerno and Liv Levenson – June 13th, 2024


L: Hi everyone, you are watching a Documentary Business webinar. My name is Liz Levenson, I’m the co-founder of Cactus Tree Entertainment. I work closely with GRB Media Ranch, and on behalf of Peter Hamilton and Documentary Business, I’m so happy to be here today with my very good friend Dan Salerno.

L: Dan is a veteran programmer and a consultant who’s been working in the television industry for a long time. He’s worked with some of the biggest brands in the non-fiction space, and Dan and I have actually been having conversations like the one we are about to have, I would say, for the last 20 years. So, we are really excited to bring you this amazing webinar today, which is about streamers and legacy networks. What opportunities are there still for producers?

D: Thanks Liz, we go back to doing these in elementary school, is that right? I do want to remind everybody that you’ve got a pretty good resume yourself!

L: Dan, today we want to focus on three main players in the documentary and unscripted world, and that is Disney and Nat Geo, Discovery and Max, and A&E networks.

D: You and myself and Peter Hamilton have been talking quite extensively about this, as is probably everybody in the business, right? I mean these are sort of the hallway conversations that happen in conferences and on Zoom calls and so forth. Where are the opportunities that are still there? Because we know it’s been a tough time. It’s not just a tough 2024, it was a tough 2023. Contractions are going on; budget cuts are going on. You can’t have a conversation or read an article about the scripted or the unscripted side without reading something about one of those topics. If you get caught up in it, it can get a little depressing at times, right? But there really are opportunities still there. I mean at the end of the day, the networks and the streamers…we should sort of blend those two together as one…they need content. They may not need as much content as they did before, they may be a little bit shaky on how often they’re saying yes, or maybe they’re not so sure when they’re going to say yes, but they are saying yes at times because they can’t go dark.


D: We’ve been kind of keeping an eye on each of those three buckets principally as well as a number of others, but I think today we wanted to focus on those three. Why don’t we go ahead and get started. The first one we wanted to talk is Nat Geo, and really Disney+ with National Geographic, right? Because what we’re beginning to see is this evolution, and it’s not just with Nat Geo, it’s all of them, but we’re seeing this evolution of the relationship between a parent company, its streamers, and its linear channels. It’s no longer one over here and one over there.  They’re blending. The commissioning teams are either the same team or they’re closely integrated in such a way that it’s invisible to you, the producer. And the decisions that they’re making on the surface, they’re a little bit of the wonky sort of stuff on the scheduling side. With National Geographic, it seems like almost every major project is coming out now quickly on the linear network, like one episode, and then the entire full series is being binge-dropped onto the Disney+ platform and Hulu, depending on the title, the next day.

A simple example…a couple of weeks ago on Memorial Day, they launched the new season of Gordon Ramsay Uncharted. Two episodes aired on Memorial Day night, a Monday night, and Tuesday morning the full series is released on Disney+ and Hulu. So clearly they’re not seeing a cannibalization between the two platforms.

L: And they need to feed the viewer expectations, which I think, when you go on streaming, you are now expecting to see obviously more than one episode. And I don’t know how many people are going to want to stick around week to week as we used to, to wait for the next episode to come out. So they’re obviously accommodating that audience in their expectations.

D: Very much, I think, and it’s really happening very much with the majority, I would say, not all, but the majority of the Nat Geo stuff. There are some of their longer form series that run like Life Below Zero and Wicked Tuna where it might be one episode at a time is released in a more traditional linear fashion. But I think that’s an exclamation point that is saying the priority for this property is the linear platform, and then we’re going to let you check it out on the digital later, maybe the next day or maybe even later than that. Whereas some of these other properties that they’ve released, they’ve announced them as Disney+ properties. Queens, the natural history series, Photographer, focusing on Nat Geo photographers, the recent miniseries Erased, which looked at African Americans and their stories in World War II.  Those were scheduled quickly on a Monday night, actually in all three cases a Monday night, but then the full complement of the programming was immediately available the next day.

The other thing I would speculate, and this is just working a little bit off my experience, I don’t actually know if it’s coming into play, but there may be some behind the scenes logistical reasons for doing it as well. It might be financial, in terms of how they allocate proportions of financial costs to different platforms or how they consolidate a P&L, it might be operational costs, it might be commitments to advertisers or cable operators on volume. So those are probably influencers, but ultimately Nat Geo clearly has shifted into a digital-first strategy as a whole.

L: So as a producer, when you approach bringing a project in Nat Geo, do you need to keep that in mind? Like, should producers be developing with that rollout strategy in mind, that maybe you need to make sure that there are episodes and cliffhangers done in such a way that if it was week to week it would make sense, but also if all the episodes were released at the same time it would also make sense? Is that something you feel like producers need to keep in mind or is that something that the network really works with them to decide how to schedule?

D: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it’s probably a little bit more of the latter. You know, the network may actually know what its strategy is going to be at the time of the commission. In other instances, they may not. They may be commissioning it because they like the idea and it feels like a fit, and as it develops, they say, hey, what if we could go over here with it or go over there with it? But I also do get the sense, I haven’t really felt it at least myself with the Disney+ content, that they have not unleashed themselves from a traditional clock. And that’s probably to due to their international platforms and their services internationally, maybe they’re prepping stuff for third-party sales where you want a proper, you know, 44, 48 or 52 minute clock for international. I don’t see those kind of weird times of 35 minutes for episode one and then 47 minutes for episode two kind of bear itself out just yet.

But what I would suggest that producers keep in mind is a very clear pivot, and they have been quite open about the pivot. They’ve talked extensively about it as they moved towards it. They’re very much with a digital-first mindset. They’re very much leaning into the limited series category as opposed to, say, the 8-part, 10-part, 12-part series. Those still do exist. Best I can tell, they’re mostly their legacy series though. I haven’t seen really anything new come out recently. It’s the limited series that you’re seeing, the three-parters usually. I’ll define a limited series as three or four parts, but could go up to six if you figure it’s a one-and-done, and that’s kind of where they’re going with a lot of their stuff that they’ve announced and a lot of the stuff in discussion in the internal marketplace. So if you’ve got the ideas, it sounds to me like think three parts and four parts, sort of quick hit, you know, big ideas, big targets, and so forth.

The other thing that I think is starting to rise back up editorially is they pivoted away from adventure, you know, the sort of the survival of the host in the wilderness trying to figure something out or challenge themselves. They don’t seem to have greenlit much of that in the last year or so, but what is rising, I think, back to the forefront, I think it makes a lot of producers probably very happy, is science and history. As you say, particularly in the history category, but I would say contemporary history. And I think when they do their creative briefs and speak about that, they do speak to contemporary history effectively within the lifetime of the viewer. So a couple of things to keep in mind as it relates to Nat Geo.


I’ll post up the transcript in three steps:

  • Intro and Nat Geo / Disney+ (today)
  • Discovery Networks / Max (watch out)
  • A+E Networks (watch out)

More from Dan & Liz

More Webinars from MIPDOC & MIPTV 2024


Liz Levenson is an international television executive who works with global platforms, producers, and distributors to develop and distribute top-quality content around the world. She is the co-founder of Cactus Tree Entertainment and EP of true crime series My Name is Reeva and documentaries The Ripple Effect and The Race for the Cure. Liz has shared her experience on panels and at conferences around the globe, including MIPTV, MIPCOM, Realscreen, NATPE and more. Prior to co-founding Cactus Tree Entertainment, Liz was the Vice President of Sales and Acquisitions at GRB Studios, and has held senior level positions at Pilgrim Studios, RiveGauche Television, and CABLEready. Liz is heading to NATPE Budapest and will share her Takeaways soon after.

Dan Salerno’s career spans multiple platforms across the global television business. He has been a key member of the leadership team for established and emerging networks, with an emphasis on strategic planning and content development. Most recently National Geographic’s Head of Programming, focusing on programming, development, and strategy, Dan’s career also includes BBC, Gospel, Fuse, and the original launch team at Discovery and its sister channels.

Read about Peter Hamilton and Documentary Business here.