“But the truth is… you’ve seen quite a lot of this before.”

Untamed Americas is one of this year’s big events on the National Geographic Channel. But if the ratings for this series are as limp as this review in Variety, then brace yourself for a lot more National Geographic tabloid TV.

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, at the premiere of Untamed Americas with a very tame snake.

  • Guest

    “…doesn’t quite measure up to the bar Discovery Channel has set…”? Wow. That’s rough. And I think you are right Alan: “…then brace yourself for a lot more National Geographic tabloid TV.”

    • Yeah, that line about Discovery was a killer. And I still can’t figure out why you bring tame animals to the premiere of a show about untamed animals. 😉

  • John Caldell

    Really? that’s all you could find?  I watched it, it was awesome – really enjoyed it.  Was it better or worse than Planet Earth – not sure, but don’t give credit to Discovery for that, it was a BBC show.  Why not enjoy that this was exactly what you think the channel should be doing and applaud them for it?  There were plenty of good reviews – only took a minute to see that.  I like what you are trying to do alan, i do, but you need to build credibility beyond a disgruntled ex-employee – not everything is wrong or evil.


    Looks like it did well for NGC – from their release



    D.C. — June 11, 2012) National
    Geographic Channels’ Sunday night premiere of Untamed Americas on June 10, at 9 p.m.
    ET/PT, showed its splendor, averaging a P25–54 0.5 rating (HH 0.8) on National
    Geographic Channel and a P25–54 0.2 rating (HH 0.5) on Nat Geo WILD — up nearly
    24 percent and 15 percent, respectively, for the channels versus their six-week


    four-hour high-definition miniseries event marked the first U.S. simulcast on
    National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD and Nat Geo Mundo.  More than
    1.2 million total viewers over age 2 tuned in to the premiere on NGC and Nat
    Geo WILD (Nat Geo Mundo is not rated).  The miniseries continues tonight
    at 9 p.m. ET/PT.   


    series was acclaimed by critics, who called it a “spectacular four-hour
    docuseries … an emotional roller coaster” (TV Guide); and a “splendidly filmed
    series,” showing “nature at its best, and most grisly” (New York Daily News).


    by Academy Award-nominated actor Josh
    Brolin, Untamed
    Americas reveals the grit and glory in the wild of North
    America, Central America and South America.  Each hour explores some of
    the greatest wildlife spectacles, delicate dances, unbelievable endurance and
    against-the-odds survival in episodes dedicated to the continent’s Mountains, Deserts, Forests and Coasts.

  • Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment — and no, that’s not all I could find. But I posted the review from Variety because it says something that needs to be said: You’ve seen this all before.

    Yeah, sure — there’s the video of the bat with the very long tongue. But I imagine that’s something we’ll all be able to see in a 2-minute YouTube clip instead of sitting down and watching the whole show in real time. Because there’s no real story we need to sit through, no unfolding drama that requires 2 hours of my time. Untamed Americas is a hi-def nature highlight reel that will be as relevant tomorrow on my DVR as it is the night it is broadcast. The upside: Long shelf life. The downside: No big rush to watch it. (You can’t say the same thing for ESPN’s SportsCenter.)  

    I’m not an expert on TV ratings, so I don’t know if a 24% and 15% jump versus the last six weeks is noteworthy, especially given all the promotion that preceded this special. But even if it is, NGS can use its website to celebrate the numbers via a press release. My beat is very different…

    You say I think Untamed Americas is just the sort of program the Channel should be producing, but I disagree. Shows like Untamed Americas will do nothing to address the Society’s central challenge: How can we make money without eroding the Brand? How can we build brand equity instead of depleting it? …

    Call me cynical, but I think shows like this one provide cover for the tabloid stuff. That is, as long as there are a few blue-chip docs on the Channel, you can still put on shows about lesbians in a Brazilian jail while arguing you’re satisfying the viewing interests of armchair anthropologists. It gives Peeping Toms plausible deniability: Hey, I’m not watching a bondage video — I’m watching a show on the National Geographic Channel about comparative cultures!

    As I’ve said repeatedly: the Channel is a short-term fix that’s causing a long-term illness. Love huts feel good now — but we’ll regret them in the morning. 

    As for “disgruntled” — I don’t know how I can convince you otherwise. What I write about at Society Matters is precisely what I said while I was on staff. If you don’t believe me, you should ask my former colleagues. In fact, many of my ideas date to the mid-1990s, and I didn’t leave NGS until 2008. I launched this site because I still believe my ideas have merit; and changes in the media landscape have only made those ideas more relevant, not less. 

    The questions I’d ask you, John, are: Why do you think John Fahey and his entire executive team are virtually invisible in the press? Why do they give so few interviews? Why do none of them participate in what is an extraordinarily lively online & IRL discussion about the future of journalism? Why are people like John Caldwell, NG’s Chief Digital Officer, and Robert Michael Murray, VP for Social Media, virtually silent about NG on social media? 

    I focus on the Society’s flaws because I think they’re potentially fatal. The good stuff — like a great video of a bat’s tongue — won’t be, can’t be the cure for what ails us.

    Thanks again for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts….

  • John Caldell

    Ah, yes, but the doctor who tells you to stop smoking & eating fatty foods recognizes that for the vast majority of the human race, going cold turkey is a mistake.  You must wean yourself with things like bat’s tongues (which was AWESOME).   Part of the draw, for me, with National Geographic is the variety for what they do – so the channel showing Taboo, Amish, Untamed Americas and last night Locked Up Abroad- pushing personal tastes aside for a moment, that’s one of the things I love about the channel.  Untamed Americas absolutely has its place and the sheer fact you can only see negative in it puts into question your ability to think clearly. Sometimes you have to just sit back and enjoy the view.

    Alan, I agree with your cause, I don’t know why Fahey and his team are invisible, that’s a fantastic question.  the issues you raise are worthy for an important institution to answer and i love the fact you have challenged them again and again.  However, some of your tactics, in my opinion, don’t rise up to the challenge.  When everything is an argument, you lose credibility in my eye – and while I’d love to believe you’ve always done this, the intense negative is unwarranted.  Who cares if this film has the urgency of Sportscenter (which i have missed my entire life and have gone on just fine, so maybe not that urgent.  Big nature doc? I’m like a kid on Xmas eve, Frozen Planet, Untamed Americas, Life- nearly everything on national geographic wild- for me, that’s must-see TV, I’m sorry you don’t enjoy it that way)  – why is not okay for an entirely new generation of viewers (and older ones like myself) to enjoy the beauty of nature in longer-form rather than saying Youtube can do that?  You can say that about anything, its a pointless comment – if having seen it before is your only measuring stick for Geographic or TV – then everyone needs to shut down (and Discovery owes everything it has done to Geographic)

    Yes, I’d call you cynical and that’s okay, we’re all a little cynical.  This is a site where it seems the vast majority of visitors just roll over and agree with you and any counter opinion is suspect.  By the way, despite it all, I share many of the same frustrations, its how i came across the site.  I believe in your cause and generally how you do it – but i don’t believe I have to agree with everything and believe you need to be challenged

    • Hi John,

      I’m not suggesting NGC go cold turkey. But I do wonder why John Fahey would say the Channel is reviewing its slate of programming to bring it more in line with the Society’s mission — and then fail to veto a show on bondage. What’s clear is that NGC is not, as you suggest, trying to “wean” itself from the tabloid fare by filming bat tongues; rather, the plan is bondage and bat tongues. As I mentioned earlier, one business school professor I interviewed says this two-faced branding strategy will not, can not work. 

      Re: ESPN – I did a lousy job of explaining why Untamed Americas isn’t really must-see TV. Specifically: I can DVR the show, watch what grabs me, and skip the boring parts and the advertisements — an option that makes media orgs very nervous….. Wildlife docs don’t require me to watch in real time, but sporting events do. The NBA finals are an event unlike Untamed Americas because they are, by and large, time sensitive. Sure, you can watch tonight’s game next week, but you run the risk of finding out in advance who won, which spoils the fun. Something critical is lost if you don’t watch the game live. Not so with the bat’s tongue. 

      Re: the critical tone of this site — yes, you’re right. And you’re not the first person to mention it. Periodically I post items about what other media organizations are doing to deal with a world drowning in digital content. NPR and The Guardian are two orgs I’ve highlighted. And while I could post about some of the fine work being done at the Magazine, in Mission Programs, in Geography Education, and elsewhere, I’m more interested in the big picture at NGS: Where will the money come from in 10 years? How will the Society sustain itself? There are plenty of ways NGS can spend money, but how will they make money? 

      That’s why I harp on the Channel. It’s generating cash, but at what long-term cost? Put another way: How do the interests of News Corp differ from the interests of the National Geographic Society? I think the goals of these two corporations are profoundly different, at least over the long haul — but I admit I may be wrong. 

      All that said, I do appreciate you calling “BS” when you deem it appropriate. I don’t think I have all the answers. But I still think it’d be worthwhile for John Fahey & Co to engage in a serious way — in public, and with all the Society’s stakeholders — about the future of a 501(c)3 organization that has long been an American treasure. Problem is, John & Co are painfully silent. Question is: Why? 

      Thanks again for your honest & civility — and for all your thoughts. 



    • P.S. I write a lot about China, and about the Society’s unwillingness to shine a light on that country in the same way we did soon after Tiananmen Square. Part of the explanation is our desire to remain on good terms with the Chinese government, which could, if provoked, revoke our publishing license. But John Fahey has also adopted an editorial approach that emphasizes similarities (we all share The Planet) instead of differences (democracy here, autocracy there). I understand why that approach helps open up new markets in China, Russia, the Arabic world, but at a cost that’s far too high. 

      John Fahey’s Pollyannaish approach to world affairs is hardly new for NGS, but I still have hope that we’re able to learn the painful lessons that history has taught us.

  • Truthiness

    dear sir. i have been reading your blog for a few years now, but remained silent. i continue to work for national geographic though that could change any day now. one never knows. senior management maintains their jobs, their very large salaries, stellar benefits and bonuses, while the rest of us are left to fear for ours. i can’t say that i like the place anymore. it’s never been as rosy as you paint it. never. it’s noble exterior hides a some what racist and sexist core. it’s beginning and present run by the 1%. it’s fact checking, often fact lacking. mediocre is a standard, and that’s true throughout most of the organization. there are some amazing people at ng, but their voices are overlooked in favor of the favorites. it’s an organization choked by fear of change, chained to old one recipe of success in a world-certainly a media landscape-changing every few months. you keep poking at the china issue. no one cares. national geographic is in a dance to determine who they are, as if they ever knew? ng is only interested in talking to an existing demographic and that is a problem because they are only getting older. what about my generation and younger? i am not interested in paying thirty bucks for a lecture. i would like to see those music photo programs. what’s happened to those? what happened to music? where is the  urban programming and content? why aren’t you asking important questions about what is going on internally? who holds john fahey, tim kelly, betty hudson and tony sablo’s feet to the fire? you keep poking at the channel. i know you know that the channel is what is keeping national geographic in business. the magazine doesn’t do that anymore and has not for years. the quality of channel programming is a reflection of the mediocrity i spoke of. john fahey is never, ever going to talk with you. he is never going to say anything negative about the channel. how could it? the organization relies on them to keep the doors open. his son works for david haslingdon. isn’t that worth disclosing? why are we talking about redoing the architecture when it will cost millions? why don’t we use that money to allow people to keep their jobs and continue to underwrite the mission portion of this ‘mission driven’ organization? i wish you would focus on what has gotten ng to where it is today so that it can plot a clear, fearless path forward. the past is important but it’s not sacred. 

    • Travellover60


      I have worked at the “Society” for years. There are many of us (including me) who feel exactly as you. I find your comments dead-on. Even ex-colleagues cannot believe what is going on. Such a shame.

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