Dear John: Why is a “violent insurrectionist” the star of an upcoming show on the National Geographic Channel?
See update (below)
Meet James Yeager. According to a news report, he’s the star of an upcoming episode of Doomsday Preppers, which is now one of the most profitable shows on the National Geographic Channel:
This is the campaign run by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which is trying to persuade National Geographic to cancel the Doomsday Preppers episode featuring “violent insurrectionist” James Yeager:
This is David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel:
This is Rupert Murdoch:
This is John Fahey, Chairman of the Board of the National Geographic Society:
It’s worth remembering that John Fahey has the authority to unilaterally kill shows on the Channel if he considers them inappropriate for the National Geographic Society. At least that’s what John said last year to a national radio audience.
So, what do you think, John? Does this episode of Doomsday Preppers deserve to be cancelled? If so, when? If not, why not?
Update, 20 September 2013 @ 10pm
From the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence:
UPDATE: On September 19, 2013, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was sent the following statement by Chris Albert, a Senior Vice President for Communications and Talent Relations with National Geographic Channels:
“Doomsday Preppers documents many individuals from across the country with unique beliefs and practices as they prepare (legally) to protect themselves and their families from various disaster scenarios. Given recent events such as Hurricane Sandy and the flooding in Colorado, this program is also a valuable platform for presenting survival tips to our viewers, and we regret that any potential interview has clouded the important work this show does. With more than 600 hours in production at any given time, we give our producers the liberty to conduct hundreds of interviews for programming on our behalf, including for this series. [James Yeager] was approached by our production company for participation in the upcoming season of Doomsday Preppers. However, after being made aware of the interview and consulting with the producers, National Geographic Channel does not believe that he fits with the show or the network, and we do not plan to air his interview in the series.”
Over at Reddit, an announcement plus a prominently placed edit:
The reason for that edit at the top? Reactions to this announcement from Redditors was decidedly mixed. Among the concerns (click images to enlarge):
That last comment isn’t really accurate: National Geographic News is (I believe) part of NG’s Digital Media division, which is part of National Geographic Ventures, which is a taxable entity; it’s not part of the tax-exempt 501(c)3 Society. Jeffhert59 is blurring a line which is quite distinct in National Geographic’s 2010 org chart (click image to enlarge):
Also, that last comment from National Geographic staffer Jeffhert59 (above) is worth remembering. To paraphrase: Yes, the public might see everyone at National Geographic as part of a single company. But we’re not. Honest. “Please don’t mix us all in the same pot.” We are separate. We are NOT the Murdoch people. You can trust us (even though who “us” is remains a major point of confusion).
Then again, for some people, this brand confusion is not a bug, it’s a feature:
STEP 1: Create TV programs that fuel “popular conspiracy theories”:
STEP 2: “Fact check” these same “popular conspiracy theories” which you have aggressively promoted on your own television channel, and show how these theories “can be easily debunked by science”:
STEP 3: Watch the CEO of one of your media subsidiaries stride onto a public stage, and then verbally stumble when he momentarily forgets whether he is the CEO of The Organization That Cares About Science… OR the CEO of The Organization That Perpetuates Conspiracy Theories Because Real Science Is Boring:
STEP 4: Revel in the corporate confusion & personal havoc you’ve created. Congratulate yourself on your ability to create conflict, then monetize it. (As we’ve noted before, Rupert Murdoch is a lot like fight promoter Don King, but with a lot less hair.)
STEP 5: Count your cash.
STEP 6: Rinse & repeat.
Sunday, March 24, 2013 @ 9:09pm
Howard Owens, President of the National Geographic Channel,
says he isn’t ready to commit to producing
a TV special based on Killing Jesus,
the latest book by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.
Less than 16 hours later,
Howard changes his mind:
Here’s the latest financial snapshot of our Society
via IRS Form 990:
It’s worth noting that in just four years:
- Revenue from membership has dropped roughly $25 million, or 16 percent.
- Net revenue has nosedived by $76 million (96 percent).
- Net assets have dropped $190 million (21 percent).
The good news, if you’re simply counting the money, can be found at National Geographic Ventures (NGV), our Society’s wholly-owned and taxable subsidiary. NGV is the corporate umbrella for all our new media and digital initiatives. It’s also the legal home of the National Geographic Channel, which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NGS has roughly a 30% stake in this joint venture.)
From all indications, the Channel appears to be a huge financial success. Exactly how big a success for NGS is difficult for me to quantify because NGV’s tax returns are not available to the public. But the 990s provide a hint about how much money is coursing through the Channel. On Schedule R (Related Organizations and Unrelated Partnership) in the 2011 filing, you’ll see this:
Column “f” says our Society’s share of the Channel’s income is more than $201 million; about half that amount is paid to the Society, while the remainder is retained to help the Channel grow. And grow it has: column “g” — $1.49 billion — represents the Society’s 30% share of the roughly $5.0 billion value of the Channel itself.
$1.5 billion out of $5.0 billion. That’s pretty serious money, especially when the Society’s initial investment in the Channel was less than $140 million.
How did the Channel do it? Why is it generating such impressive returns and experiencing such dramatic growth?
The short answer: People apparently love the programs about gangs… Nazis… drugs… prisons… sex addiction… prostitution… the Bikini Test… men who are sexually intimate with inflatable dolls… a woman who is addicted to having sex with strangers in a parking garage (with requisite on-screen analysis by a behavioral scientist)… Cops… lesbians in a Brazilian jail… and so on & so forth, ad nauseam.
Programming brilliance? Not really.
Then again, this discussion really isn’t about Rupert Murdoch. We’ve always known who he is.
In the end, this is about who we are, and who we want to be – as a Society and as a society.
♦ Can National Geographic put its iconic name & logo on fairgrounds & brothels (the Channel) and, at the same time, on libraries & nunneries (i.e., the Magazine) — and still be taken seriously by the public?
♦ Can National Geographic build a sustainable future on a network of brothels, which are raking in the cash, while the libraries wither on the vine — and the Society’s members continue their mass exodus?
♦ Most of all: How can John Fahey manage the National Geographic brand when the Channel, which reaches hundreds of millions of people around the world, is beyond his editorial control?
Put another way: What happens to The Brand’s hard-earned reputation when the Channel showcases stuff like this in prime time…
… and programs like this one called Sex for Sale, which is about “high-end sex work”…
… while our Chairman & CEO shows this earnest face to the public:
… but makes jokes in private about the Society’s embrace of “factual fiction”:
From a no-nonsense, hard-headed business perspective,
is this wise brand management?
And: Is it sustainable?
We posed that question to Professor Sanal Mazvancheryl,
an expert in brand management
who teaches at the Kogod School of Business at American University:
We’re not experts in how a National Geographic “docu-series” is actually produced, which is why we have so many questions about the process. For instance…
On the evening of Tuesday, January 29, 2013, in Homer, Alaska, National Geographic field producer Natalia Livingston led the casting call for an upcoming “docu-series” about the Old Believers of Nikolaevsk. Ms. Livingston, who won an Emmy Award in 2005 for her portrayal of Emily Quartermaine in the daytime drama General Hospital, has been in and around Homer many times in recent months, and has been working closely with the community to build their confidence in the National Geographic team — and to encourage Old Believers to participate in the making of the series. Those folks who do agree and are selected will need to sign releases and other legal documents which will enable them to appear on the show.
Weeks later, when the cameras finally start running, Jarrett Lambo — who is the showrunner — will finally arrive and take control of the entire production. It’s Mr. Lambo’s series, and he will be calling all the shots. (His TV production credits include Moonshiners for Discovery, Paranormal Challenge for the Travel Channel , and Jersey Shore for MTV.)
Which makes us wonder: Why does the field producer do all the advance work and the confidence building, recruit the talent, and then persuade the participants to sign all the legal agreements…
… but the show runner doesn’t show his face in Homer until everyone is legally committed to the project?
To our untrained eye, this seems odd. After all, for a sensitive production like this one, shouldn’t the showrunner be on the scene months in advance, meeting the locals and assuring them that the production is in trustworthy hands? Shouldn’t the Old Believers know exactly who will be behind the camera?
Do you, dear reader, understand this process? Is this standard operating procedure in the world of the television “docu-series”? Because we’re totally stumped.