Fresh off a major rebrand of National Geographic’s global properties, Nat Geo premiered the 6-part miniseries event “Mars” on Monday, a story of the quest to colonize Mars and the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Executive produced by film heavyweights Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the series is part scripted and part documentary, with experts such as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk lending credibility. We spoke with Nat Geo president Tim Pastore about making the series, experimenting with new formats and the company’s new tagline, “Further.”
How does Mars fit into your overall programming strategy?
Mars is emblematic of the new programming strategy. Over a year ago was when we announced and shared the exciting transformation and new vision for what the National Geographic Channel will become, that is, as a leading destination for science, adventure, and exploration content, a premium destination. To us Mars is the actualization of that strategy and emblematic of the scope, the ambition and the passion of what the new Nat Geo moving forward will look like.
You had unprecedented access to people and places for the series, including Elon Musk and NASA. Any challenges come with that?
Every day. The Mars production assembled a phenomenal team from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to Radical Media, but a very diverse and global production army to facilitate what is a highly complicated program venture. So the biggest challenges and most daunting task was how to break the format. How to bust the genre, so to speak, and marry together the feature qualities—the scripted narrative elements—with the documentary elements as well. What is the dance that will occur between two distinct genres to create this drama doc? which in itself is not an easy task. That was the fundamental challenge out of the gate. Also, from just the pure production standpoint, we had crews in Budapest shooting the scripted narrative, doing the heavy research with the National Geographic research team, to make sure that all of scripted elements were rooted in authenticity and all the details were scoured and every line was informed heavily by research and experts. The plethora of behind-the-scenes consultants that we brought on board, all the way to Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American woman gone into space, putting our actors through a kind of space camp and written exams to make sure that their performances were informed by the realities of space and being an astronaut, all the way to sending documentary crews to Antarctica. In terms of scope and scale and pure production management, those were also the day-to-day challenges.
So you are experimenting with hybrid formats. Are you doing this with other programming at Nat Geo?
We are in a certain respect. With the experience of Mars, clearly what set us toward experimenting with this genre mashup to begin with was that at National Geographic we’re not just storytellers—we like to consider ourselves story makers. And for us, that also means how to find new, innovative ways in which to showcase, share, inspire, illuminate a story. So mixing and matching, what I call genre mashups, is fundamentally another narrative technique that we’ve been experimenting with. We also find this in our current re-imagination of “Explorer,” where we are introducing a studio format as well into the magazine format with respect to our shorter video stories that are facilitated by correspondents out in the field as well as panel discussions. And then also we have a few coming around the corner that will also exhibit certain hybrids and partnerships. For instance, and I would call this a creative mashup, programs like “One Strange Rock” that really is an earth science-based and natural history-based program, a story that tells the story of Earth and mankind, our place in the Universe, but utilizing the cinematic and narrative techniques that a visionary like Darren Aronofsky will bring to this specific genre. [It’s involves] taking devices and techniques from distinct genres and storytelling worlds and bringing them together to create something unsuspecting, fresh and innovative.
Since joining forces with 21st Century Fox and putting all content under one umbrella, how has that changed operations and/or content creation?
The formation of National Geographic Partners was really the alignment of all the National Geographic platforms under the same roof. Mars really is, when you talk about the tagline “Further,” and how that gives us the opportunity to market to the community the global reach of National Geographic, Mars is really emblematic of that because it’s not only a television event. The event will also ignite the family platforms and allow us to amplify our storytelling across the other platforms. It has two books, a speakers’ tour, the cover of the magazine, it will have a massive digital outreach, it has a prequel… It really utilizes all of our platforms to be the first case study of the Further campaign.
So international is very important to the Nat Geo brand.
Yes. This was exhibited with the release of “Before the Flood,” which was a global, day launch in 171 countries and 45 languages. So when we talk about centralizing our programming strategy, that also heightens our focus on how to launch global campaigns. How do we create global conversations around our programming so it’s not a pebble dropped in the ocean in one specific part of the world? We really utilize our global footprint to be a part of the conversation, generate the conversation, integrate ourselves into the Zeitgeist and ignite all the platforms under a singular initiative, vision and impact-oriented strategy.