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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

What Does National Geographic Channel Pay for Programs?

This week we examine the ‘Sweet Spot’ for network production budgets for National Geographic Channel (NGC).

Next week’s topic: a deeper look into NGC’s Development and Production Processes.

NGC was launched in 2001 and is now distributed to 70 million of the 115 million U.S. TV homes.

NGC is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV), the for-profit arm of the venerable National Geographic Society, and News Corporation’s Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  

Across three centuries, the Society’s yellow border has been one of America’s prized brands in fields as diverse as magazine and book publishing, education, exploration, research, conservation, cartography, and television.

In 1963, the Society began producing ‘blue chip’ wildlife, ethnographic and adventure documentary films. The Society’s National Geographic Television unit (NGT) has since earned more than 100 Emmy’s. Its National Geographic Explorer series is one of the most honored of all documentary brands, remaining an oasis of director-crafted works in a field that is marked by increasing standardization.

Within the Society, NGT championed the formation of a JV with Fox to launch the channel. NGT has since enjoyed an output deal with NGC, supplying up to 100 hours each year. Explorer is a key NGC series.

NGC was late to the U.S. market compared with established non-fiction channels like Discovery and History. Its distribution and viewing lag behind the fully-distributed channels.  However, NGC’s flagship Specials have delivered huge audiences that have been competitive with leading non-fiction channels.

NGC’s highest rated programs in 2009 were On Board Air Force One (2.6 million households, Partisan Pictures), On Board Air Marine One (2.2M, Partisan), Waking the Baby Mammoth (1.5M, Woolly Mammoth Productions), and Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers (1.4M, Bullseye Productions).  Leading the field in 2008 were The Girl with Eight Limbs (ZigZag) and Stonehenge Decoded (NGT).

NGC is an Adult-targeted channel that is skews male (60%) and college-educated (63% of P25-54).

NGC promotes its dedication to quality, citing the industry-leading 24 Emmy nominations earned for news and documentaries in 2008/2009.

NGC describes its principal competitor as: ‘Ourselves, and the expectations created by our seven years of consecutive audience growth’. Non-fiction channels that compete for comparable program ideas and audiences include Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, History, Bio, Science and PBS.

The NGC-International venture distributes regionally-adapted Nat Geo- branded channels to more than 200 million homes in 160 countries.

In March 2010, NGV and News Corp announced the launch of Nat Geo Wild, a wildlife-themed channel that has been tested for three years by NGC-International. Nat Geo Wild replaces Fox Reality channel in around 50 million U.S. homes. From this enviable launch platform, Nat Geo Wild is challenging a deeply entrenched adversary: Discovery’s Animal Planet.

***************** ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

Purchase our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels.

The ‘Sweet Spot’ Report covers:

  • 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 Coproduction Model …

  • NGC employs a flexible rights model that is a mix of co-productions between NGC and NGC-I, work-for-hire commissions, and co-productions between NGC and other partners.
  • More than three quarters of NGC’s programs are coproductions, and most of these involve an international partner. It helps for NGC concepts to travel across borders.
  • When NGC and NGC-I share costs, the on-screen values for an original program are higher than could be afforded by any single territory.
  • The NGC and NGC-I teams also develop programs for the new Nat Geo Wild network.
  • NGC’s dedicated coproduction executive brings additional partners, like the BBC and Sky, to qualified projects.  

There will be More Series in NGC’s Mix …

  • NGC will commission 400+/- hours in 2010, of which less than 100 are for series.
  • In 2009, NGC offered more series in its programming mix, led by Border Wars (NGT), Taboo (Beyond International) and Alaska State Troopers (PSG Films). 
  • The move to series is gaining momentum in 2010.
  • NGC’s strategy is to test a concept as a Special, and to order additional episodes if it works.
  • Hooked, from Hoff Productions, tested the waters for a Special about fish and angling. It was a surprise hit. Twenty episodes of Hooked were commissioned in 2010. This anthology series successfully encompasses enthusiasm for angling with exploration, ethnography and scientific research. Hooked is a model for NG branding because access and research are contributed by the Society’s Explorer-in-Residence program on freshwater species. Hooked in turn spun off Monster Fish, with 7 episodes commissioned for 2010.
  • Alaska State Troopers launched as a one-hour Special, leading to an order for 3-4 more episodes, followed by another 6 episodes.
  • Border Wars followed a similar path from Special to 3-4 episodes, and then for 6 and 10 more. Border Wars is the highest-rated series in NGC’s history.

NGC’s ‘Sweet Spot’ … Or is it the ‘Sweet Region’?

  • The ‘Sweet Spot’ is an easy concept for U.S. network operators like AETN and Scripps, with their work-for-hire model. Their channels almost always pay 100% of the cost of whatever is delivered on screen. (See Archive for discussion of work-for-hire at A&E and History.)
  • This benchmark doesn’t work quite so well at NGC where the ‘Sweet Spot’ typically refers to the combined contribution of NGC and NGC-I. And actual production budgets may be pushed even higher by additional coproduction partners.
  • NGC’s Signature effort for 2010 is Virgin Galactic, a 4-hour event about space tourism that features Richard Branson and is coproduced by Darlow Smithson Productions (UK) and NGT.
  • The ‘High’ cost benchmark ($400+) is for a National Geographic Explorer Special.
  • Hooked and Border Wars are delivered near the ‘Sweet Spot’ of $350.
  • The ‘Low’ benchmark is $275, and may reflect projects where NGC went it alone without NGC-I.
  • We know about only a handful of projects for the new Nat Geo Wild channel.  The ‘Sweet Spot’ for episodes in a Nat Geo Wild anthology series is in the $225-250 range.
  • Watch out for more detail in next week’s post on NGC’s Development and Production Process.

NGC’s Hail Mary?

We asked NGC: “What do you feel needs to be added to the mix — or ramped up — to break the status quo and move the channel up to the next level?”

Answer: “It would be really nice to get a fresh/contemporary Science series off the ground.  Something with the right tone and approach to draw a wider (and younger) demographic.”

Next Week: The Development Process at Nat Geo

‘Sweet Spots’ Coming soon:

  • HBO Documentaries
  • Scripps Networks: Food, HGTV, Travel, Cooking, DIY and GAC
  • OWN – Oprah Winfrey Network
  • Smithsonian Channel
  • Canadian channels: including coverage of revisions to tax regime
  • BBC
  • TF1, Arte, ZDF, ABC and SBS,  and many more

And Other Topics:

  • The Documentary Producer Economic Model: Artisan, boutique, lifestyle choice, sweatshop, or  … ??
  • Who does watch Non-fiction television?
  • Why Music Matters!
  • Secrets of The Bible
  • Digital Deliverables: Creeping or getting creepy?
  • Valuing Libraries, and much, much more.

Many Thanks
Our readers are programming executives, senior and aspiring producers, attorneys, foundation adminstrators, and lots more. Thanks so much for your encouraging feedback! And also for recommending to your friends and colleagues.


  1. Just read your site for the very first time and want to express how valuable the information is that you provide. Just having these benchmarks gives producers a very good vantage point in begining their production planning, discussions and eventual negotiations. Thank you for your very insightful reports.

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

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