“The principles and mission of National Geographic….”

Back in March, John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic, talked to Bob Garfield, co-host of On The Media, about the tabloid-style programs on the National Geographic Channel (which is owned by News Corp):

Here’s the splash screen for the new season of Taboo beginning Sunday, June 17 at 10pm:

Journey beyond your comfort zone to explore behaviors and lifestyles that are acceptable in some cultures but forbidden, illegal or reviled in others. The eighth season of Taboo features more incredible stories, including sellers of “murderabilia,” a culture that encourages young women to have sex in “love huts”, and a community that breaks open the doors of family tombs, removing bundled corpses of ancestors, and then dancing and drinking rum in celebration.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel.

  • Gmairson


    • Double urgh.

      • Kristin Sturdevant

         Triple.  Can anyone tell me why zombies and vampires and pics of people eating people  is so out there right now?

        • I’m afraid I have no insights on that one, Kristin. The Zombie Apocalypse is a total mystery to me. 

  • Jan Adkins

    If this weren’t so contrary to the institution I knew and loved, this would be downright funny. One can imagine an afterwork drink with colleagues (long ago), and some wag saying, “Hey, what if we . . . oh, this would frost everyone on the eighth floor . . . if we did a feature on fetish freak bondage women and called it ‘Western Anthropology?’ My God, they’d die up there.” Apparently not. Instead of bringing our readers/watchers up to a more cognizant level of understanding, science, global awareness, we’re bringing programming down to the lowest common denominator, tabloid titillation, sophomoric voyeurism. Do we need market share that badly?

    • I don’t have to imagine such conversations, Jan. I used to have them. I especially remember floating the idea that NGM publish a story about the American prison system. Got a lot of laughs, and I’d jokingly argue with colleagues about who would present the idea to the Planning Council. … Now, of course, the Channel is full of prison shows in prime time. Which only proves that what begins as farce soon becomes a feature — at least now that News Corp is calling so many of the shots. 

      And your Western Anthropology riff is spot on. If you listen to the interview with David Lyle, you can hear precisely that strain of thinking. I’m bracing myself for a new series titled Bondage, with weekly installments: Bondage: Brazil …. Bondage: Thailand… you know, so it has that multicultural vibe.

  • Travellover60

    Jan, your use of of “knew” and “loved” is so on target. You and the public at large are thinking of the old NG. The new NG is all about making money (take if from someone who currently works at the “Society” and has for years). 

    Yes, we do need market share badly—brings in more money for those at the top. The lowest common denominator (tabloid titillation, sophomoric voyeurism) brings it in. And it’s not just NG, it’s everywhere—take a look at other TV channels.Heaven help the magazine if they are going to be working closely with the Channel. Can you imagine articles based on the “Taboo” TV series? Oy vey…The principles and mission of NG? Give me a break. 

    • Oh yes, T60 — they need the eyeballs. And the plan, it seems, is to deliver both bondage “documentaries” AND big specials like Untamed America. The wildlife footage reminds you of the blue-chip documentaries from days of yore, which then gives you permission to watch bondage videos under the guise of being an armchair anthropologist. What will the “balance” be over the long haul? Not a healthy one, I’m afraid…

  • John Caldell

    Propaganda on all sides, including yours Alan, is getting old.  No, not all the shows are going to fit the traditional (and old) view of the NG Brand,  Fahey didn’t say it was turning around tomorrow, it takes time.  I’m not advocating S&M, of course, but you use one example to make a point and skew the argument with hilarious pictures of executives which belittle your otherwise interesting cause.  You’re a little bit in danger of becoming a parody of yourself – you use the very same tactics you make sure to call out the society and news corp on. Stick to the arguments, they are more interesting.  

    Let’s not forget that the channel is in the TV entertainment business – and is helping the rest of the society that can’t seem to do anything right (as you pointed out, seems about the only group making money – now just get the society to spend it the right way). Taboo has been running for a long time on the channel, i’ve seen it many times – sometimes it goes too far- sometimes it hits extremely important issues – but its not campy or sensational (topics may be).  so I looked at the site from where you took the intro text, some episodes coming up:
    Living with the Dead:sounds like how people deal with death from normal to strange
    Strange Behavior: Tourettes, narcolepsy, self-harm
    Booze – seems self explanatory
    Teen Sex- how different cultures handle

    Most of these wouldn’t be in the magazine, that’s doesn’t mean they shouldn’t air it.  Last time i checked, watching TV and reading a magazine – not the same thing.  Some of these clearly done to grab attention and ratings and wish they wouldn’t do that, they don’t need to cover teen sex, definitely over the top.  But the litmus test is not whether or not the magazine would do it – are more people reading the magazine today than they were 5, 10, 15, 20, years ago?    Maybe that’s not a good model.

    • John,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t have time for a long reply, but here are a few thoughts….

      – NG TV shows may not fit the traditional NG Brand, but I do believe John Fahey must make a decision: Either he’s going to do tabloid TV, or he’s not. Why? Because there’s no way to sustain the NG brand over the long haul if you’re sending two dramatically different messages about Who You Are. … Please know that’s not my biased POV or “propaganda”; rather, I asked a professional brand manager & business school professional if John’s dual brand strategy can work. His answer: No. (You can hear the whole thing here.)  

      – I haven’t taken “one example to make a point”; I’ve provided countless examples on this site. The bondage episode of Taboo is merely the latest installment. 

      – Hilarious pictures of executives? You mean the one of John Fahey? That’s a photo recently published by the Wall Street Journal. 

      – Yes, the topics covered on Taboo are mostly campy or sensational. That’s why the show has remained on the air for eight years. Campy & sensational are staples of the Murdoch media diet (booze, sex, strange behavior, etc….)

      – You’re right: Watching TV and reading a magazine are not the same thing — but those two worlds are rapidly converging on tablets and other devices. Ten years ago, you might have been able to get away by saying: The television universe and the magazine universe exist in parallel; they never intersect. Some people can read climate change stories in National Geographic magazine while sitting in the living room; other people will watch soft porn dressed up as anthropology on TV while lounging in the basement. But those two worlds are rapidly becoming one, something John Fahey didn’t grasp — couldn’t grasp — when he signed up with Murdoch back in the late 1990s. 

      – I agree with you that the traditional magazine model is a bad model for NGM in the years ahead. The membership numbers will continue to fall, and so will revenue and advertising dollars. Asking people to pay for cheetah pictures is a non-starter, especially when the world is overflowing with cheetah pictures and plenty of great photography, much of which you can see for free. 

      My advice to John Fahey and Chris Johns is: Get over yourselves. The line that separates the pros from the amateurs has become breathtakingly thin, and to pretend otherwise is to dig the hole you’re in even deeper. Better to be honest and say: The center of gravity in publishing has shifted for good. People can now do what National Geographic has been privileged to do for more than a century: Document the world and all that is in it. Our goal is to now empower people — with the skills, the equipment, and the confidence — to do what we do. In the process, we’ll help people see their lives as an adventure they’re not simply watching, but one that they’re living & shaping. 

      The skills of a good journalist are the same skills required of a citizen in a free, open, and democratic society: The ability to observe… to think critically… to formulate and ask questions… to synthesize… to communicate… to share… and to act, as both observer and participant. 

      That’s a future for National Geographic that is both consistent with the Society’s history — and that gives some hope for the long-term survival of NGS. 

      Thanks again for your comments… and for stopping by.

  • Jan Adkins

    John, a voice of reason and moderation is always welcome in a discussion, even when I disagree. Respectfully.

    Alan is doing something most of us are too busy or too polite to address: he’s opened a lively dialogue about values. People don’t like to weigh values in our liberal society. Live and let live, let a thousand flowers bloom, as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses, my idea is jes’ as good as yours. Talking about values is passé. But it’s something our grandfathers discussed openly. Listening to this year’s political furor (NOT a dialogue) convinces me that we should get in practice again.

    When Murdoch bought Geographic’s name, it was clear that the corporate businesspeople in the NGS boardroom were derelict in their stewardship of purpose and voice. It was also clear that, for them, money trumped any other considerations. Was the Society founded to make money? No, there was another motive, even beyond the now-lip-service promotion of geographic knowledge.

     Bell and his friends at the Cosmos Club were full of excitement and delight at the diversity of the world and wanted to share it on an objective and scientific level. They weren’t trying to out-titillate Barnum’s raree shows and wow the rubes, but to discover the reasons behind a world bursting with unfamiliar, misunderstood, often unknown phenomena. They felt – so did GHG and MBG – that their delight and their voice of reason would improve education, lift understanding, promote global awareness (even then). They could have made more money with Barnum. Barnum and Murdoch are brothers.

    The voice of reason outside the gate of Mammon will always sound a little tiresome at times. “Rein in” is not as sexy a message as “let yourself go.” Are the arguments in this forum getting old? No, they’re merely repetitious, since new reasons for the same message occur with sad frequency from the captive network.

    Are these discussions employing the same freak-out, shock-value, tabloid techniques about which we’re upset? Don’t think so, John. This sounds and feels like a rational, balanced discussion.

    You don’t have the sexiest or freakiest or most sensational message in town, Alan, but it’s spot-on. The Murdoch adoration of public stupidity is neither a good fit for the Society, nor even true. We talk about Joe Six-Pack but Joe knows more about the world and is more aware and alert than most editors and all TV programmers assume. The Society should have a bit more respect for Joe, and less respect for the money they can make pandering to his basest whims.


  • Guest

    And thanks to Jan and Alan for their comments. As a long-time employee of NG, I have seen it all—the good (years past) and the bad (from about 1997 onward). There are many “old-timers” who feel the same way. Heck, there are even “new-timers” who feel the same way the old folks do.Save the dumbing down of the Channel and all things with the NG logo on it for some other company.

  • Kristin Sturdevant

    Can anyone tell me why zombies, vampires and photos of people eacting people is so “out there” right now?

  • Jan Adkins

    ANOTHER WORD on the discussion of values and the Murdoch Approach.

    We should have learned something from Apple. For decades Apple was dismissed as an also-ran, a poor relation in the business computer world, a grudging 15% of computer sales. But 15% of a new paradigm, of a massive worldwide market, is a big chunk. IBM, Dell, any number of other producers flooded the market with slick product. Apple stayed focused, kept innovating, shifting toward its own ideal of chaste, lean design and surprising function. It didn’t try to be number one. It strove to be … well, Apple. At which it’s resoundingly successful. Apple makes (a lot of) money by being itself.

    The lesson here is that success isn’t being the biggest, toughest, or even the most popular kid on the block. You define the metrics of your own success.

    Originally the Society hoped to survive by accepting subscriptions (which were memberships in a society of exploration, remember) in order to fund research and expeditions. We reported. We didn’t pander. We were, at times, outrageous (the reputation of being the only topless magazine of the 30’s and 40’s) but we were a success by our own lean standards. (Let’s ignore the post-Ektachrome Myth of the Red Blazer.) We carved out a major market share being NGS.

    One of the central gripes we’ve been making and remaking is that the Society has confused money and market share with success.

    Not surprising: the board is packed with businessmen who share one yardstick with $ increments. You CAN measure boeuf bourguignon with a tape measure, but it won’t mean much. Yes, the Society should make money, sustain itself, pay good wages to its people, fund creative research and ambitious expeditions (that have a scientific purpose). But, like Apple, it doesn’t necessarily need the biggest market share or the most money to be successful. Because the success of the Society isn’t money; it’s knowledge and encouraging all of us to explore. When Luis Marden came back from some far-flung place, his readers naturally looked at the world around them more closely, with more enthusiastic inquiry.

    Is it possible that the high production costs of any TV segment drives this wayward juggernaut? Does the cost of “Wild Girls In Sex Huts” actually conjure up a need for more, even less rational titillation? Or have our boardroom stewards lost their ability to define success beyond fiduciary markers?


    • JA,

      No surprise that I mostly agree with you. In fact, I once made a similar comparison with Apple in this post. Apple has done a much better job keeping its eye on the ball; the challenge at NGS has been not knowing where the ball is, or even what game we’re trying to play. 

      When the major management shifts took place in the mid-1990s, John Fahey & his team faced a serious challenge: How should they measure success? At the end of the year, how do you determine if the organization had “increased and diffused geographic knowledge”?

      More pointedly: How can a company compare the sale of a magazine to a book to a photograph to a poster to a NGS-branded sweatshirt to a TV show to a NGS-branded bedroom set? With an expanding portfolio of products, what are the most meaningful metrics?

      One answer, of course, is: Count the money. Each dollar is a vote cast by a consumer who affirms the value of your product or service. And the customer is king.There is a certain logic to this approach, but it quickly gets you in trouble. If, in the end, you can’t distinguish the relative value of your journalism vs. your branded bedroom furniture — well, you’re sunk. 

      I don’t believe there’s some sort of evil boardroom conspiracy. But I do believe a series of decisions have been made — each one logical in its time — that’s led to an unfortunate incremental erosion to the Society’s reputation, its brand equity. … I’m sure when the Channel was launched in the late 1990s, NGS demanded all sorts of guarantees from Fox re editorial oversight & control, and I’m sure they were granted, more or less. One of the earliest shows on the Channel was National Geographic Today, which was broadcast from a very expensive studio that was custom built in Explorers Hall. The show was produced by a Nightline veteran (Mark Nelson), and was intended to be Channel’s anchor show —  but it failed. Lousy ratings. National Geographic may have wanted to stay the course, but I’m sure the message from Fox was clear: Show us the money. … And so began the gradual descent to shows about prisons, Nazis, drugs, and “love huts.” 

      I have little doubt that John Fahey knows the NGS brand is getting tarnished by what Fox is putting on the air because he said as much in this radio interview. And since John does have a responsibility to keep NGS financially solvent, he’s dependent on the cash generated by tabloid TV. The challenge is to convince him there’s another viable business model that doesn’t rely on love huts. 

      I believe there is such a model out there, based not on advertising but on membership. Problem is, embracing a revived membership model would require the slaying of some sacred cows, such as: 
      • National Geographic is the alpha & the omega of photojournalism; 
      • National Geographic produces the finest wildlife documentaries in the world; 
      • The line between pro & amateur photographers is as wide and impermeable as ever;
      • We have no bias and no agenda — and it has been that way for more than 120 years

      Those are all silly claims, yet we continue to make them. When we stop, it will mark the beginning of a new & better chapter for NGS.

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  • Guest

    Agree with you Jan…

    With respect to “Yes, the Society should make money, sustain itself, pay good wages to its people, fund creative research and ambitious expeditions (that have a scientific purpose).” —> I especially like the fact that the Society should pay good wages to its people. Unfortunately it doesn’t. For years the “excuse” was we were non-profit and had good benefits. Many divisions are now for-profit, and benefits for all (except the executives) have decreased. Management and HR still has the holier-than-thou attitude (“We are NGS,” “We have the best magazine,” “If you don’t like it, there are many others waiting to take your place,” blah, blah, blah), but they certainly don’t pay their non-magazine people well.

    • I’d like to tell you that your compensation will improve when the economy & the publishing industry improves, but I don’t think that’s the case. Reining in costs — especially salaries & benefits — isn’t a function of the downturn; now it’s business as usual. 

      Hang in there, Guest….

      • Guest

        I am happy to have a job but you are right: “Reining in costs — especially salaries & benefits — isn’t a function of the downturn; now it’s business as usual” for the staff, not the executives.

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