StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How Nat Geo Channel Commissions Programs. Case Study: Nat Geo Explorer

This week we go deeper into the development and production process for National Geographic Channel (NGC), including a look at Explorer specials produced by National Geographic Television (NGT).

The ‘Sweet Spot’

Last week, we described NGC’s flexible commissioning model that mixes:

  • Coproductions with NGC-International (70% +/-)
  • Coproductions with other partners, and
  • Work-for-hire projects.

Many of you asked: “What is NGC-International’s typical contribution to a NGC/NGCI coproduction?”  According to several sources, the answer is: $75-125+/- in the ‘Sweet Spot’ to High range, depending on the project and the NGC-I territories that buy in. (Watch out for our upcoming report on NGC-I.)

For more on Nat Geo’s Sweet Spot’, purchase the ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

Our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels cover:

  • Network budget benchmarks for original commissions
  • Several levels: Signature, High, ‘Sweet Spot’ and Low
  • We cover ‘the biggies’ and diginets

What the Sources Say about NGC’s Development Process …

  • The NGC and NGC-I collaboration results in on-screen values that are higher than could be afforded by any single territory alone.
  • The NGC and NGC-I Development teams are each comprised of 5+/- executives who are located in adjacent offices in Washington, D.C. They constantly share proposals around the water cooler as well as at weekly combined Development meetings. Decisions are made quickly to tie up unique and time-sensitive stories.
  • For Specials and Anthologies, NGC prefers to commission independent ‘filmmakers’ to deliver 1-3 hours / year each, thereby achieving cost savings versus the typically higher budgets of larger production companies with their costly back offices.
  • For series, NGC favors established production companies with a successful track record, scale and a familiar back office.
  • Newcomers who enjoy unique access or strong story-telling talents are typically tested on specials or one-offs, or paired with established producers.
  • NGC’s coproduction specialist finds partners like the BBC and SKY for qualified projects.
  • Producers sometimes bring along their own copro partners, and they occasionally deficit-finance NGC commissions in return for future back-end revenues.

… including NGT

  • NGT enjoys an output deal with NGC, accounting for up to 100 of the 120 +/- programs that NGT produces each year. These include NGC’s highest-ever rated series, Border Wars, and around twenty National Geographic Explorer specials. Explorer is one of the most honored of all documentary programs, earning 56 of the Society’s 100+ Emmy’s.
  • NGT houses its own vice president-led development team, which is located in the same building as NGC and they are in constant contact with each other.
  • The unit either produces in house, or sub-contracts with leading independent filmmakers on a work-for-hire basis.
  • The over-lapping NGC, NGC-I and NGT development teams nurture a wide catchment of production companies and independents.


Following is a sampling of several recent interviews with accomplished independent filmmakers who have produced Explorer Specials.

  • Explorer is an oasis in the factual landscape for producer/directors. In the U.S., only HBO and CPB/PBS/ITVS – and perhaps on an emerging scale the Smithsonian Channel – offer comparable opportunities to fully fund the projects of independents.’



  • ‘We have one client with two audiences: NGT, and then NGC / NGC-I.  We pitch first to NGT, and then they arrange and work on the pitch to the channels. We receive extensive notes from both throughout the development process, and then afterwards for the duration of the project.’
  • The Explorer budgets are healthy. Our budget is around your ‘Sweet Spot’ for NGC, whether we spend weeks sitting in a tree in Patagonia for one film or if we create high-end CGI and costume reenactments for another. Either way, we have to get it done for around that cost.’
  • The ‘Sweet Spot’ for producers is not all about the budget, but it’s also about client service. The best way to run any client-driven business is to earn a commission before the last one is complete. And that’s only going to happen if the commissioner enjoys the experience given an excellent level of quality. That’s the ‘Sweet Spot’ that we aim for.’
  • ‘We don’t earn the usual Executive Producer’s fee of 15-20%. NGT adds its own direct costs, and earns the EP fee. We retain no rights or back end’
  • ‘The proposed line item Budget is closely scrutinized by NGT.’
  • ‘Payments are staged and closely tied to Deliverables.’

Pre-production (3-4 weeks)

  • ‘Explorer presents a detailed style guide and graphics package.’
  • ‘We spend 1-2 weeks on more intensive research and then make a ‘bar pitch’ to NGT – a phone call to make sure that we’re all on the same track.’
  • ‘Two weeks later, we present a Beat Sheet: a 10-page outline that is intended to ensure that all the party’s intentions are aligned at a detailed level. The Beat Sheet includes pre-interview notes.’
  • ‘The contracted Budget is carefully revised based on a study of the cost implications of the Beat Sheet.’

Field Production

  • ‘The Timeline depends on the nature of the program: we could be months in the field with a single camera, or we might wrap up in weeks.’
  • ‘We send production stills to NGT.’

Post-production (8-10 weeks)

  • ‘Pre-edit Planning: We edit the script and create a paper edit.’
  • ‘Five weeks into the edit, we deliver a 50+/- minute ‘Pre-rough’ for NGT. We make changes based on their feedback.’
  • ‘A week later we deliver the Rough Cut for NGT to share with NGC. The channel and NGT send back detailed notes within a week or so.’
  • ‘We deliver the Fine Cut 2-3 weeks later.’
  • ‘The total time spent on post-production is far longer than we have experienced working on other projects. It indicates NGT’s and NGC’s commitment to the award-winning quality of the Explorer films.’


  • ‘The Deliverables at NGT are complex and demanding. For instance, fact checking is significantly higher than at other channels. NGT is intent on preserving the yellow borders brand, which is, after all, the key that gives us access in the first place.’
  • (Watch out for our upcoming report on Digital Deliverables and ‘The Bible’.)

Note on Sources

The data is taken from recent interviews with network executives, producers, distributors and experts, as well as from conference presentations and published sources. Actual budgets, rights and deliverables vary from project to project.

Many Thanks
Last week’s post on Nat Geo Channel set new highs for readers of our newsletter. You are programming executives, senior and aspiring producers, conference programmers,  agents, attorneys,  and lots more. Thanks so much for your encouraging feedback! And also for recommending to your friends and colleagues.


  1. Pingback: Nat Geo Channel & Nat Geo Wild: What’s New? Who’s Producing? How Many? What’s the ‘Sweet Spot’? «

  2. Thank you for this article, it was very useful to us. We’re a production company ‘Milky Liars’ (.com) based in India and we’re currently doing an Advertiser’s Funded Project with NGC India. We’re facing some issues regarding the development and production procedures and all this after we have finished making the film according to the discussions and guidelines discussed with us by the programming head NGC India. Now, there is no NGT here and the new set of changes being suggested to us is constantly differing from the previous ones. It has been really very tough ask for us to find balance between the Advertiser’s requirements and the broadcaster’s parameters which is only being told to us verbally. We were trying to look for some standard document explaining the NGC’s procedures or parameters for a special to be fit to air on NGC. We haven’t got anything in that regard but this article has been useful to us, so thank you for this article.

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