How National Geographic’s Shows Tackle Climate Change Without Seeming Like ‘Homework’

Animals help, along with compelling imagery and storytelling

Polar bear walking on ice
Recent miniseries Hostile Planet focused on animals to educate viewers on climate change and preservation. - Credit by National Geographic/Tom Hugh Jones
Headshot of Jason Lynch

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

The National Geographic brand has been covering climate change for more than five decades, but it’s only been three years since the National Geographic network, which debuted in 2001, has embraced the topic as a central component of its TV strategy.

“I think the belief at the time was that no one was going to watch that,” said National Geographic Global Networks president Courteney Monroe, who began to change that after she took over the U.S. network in 2014 and added global oversight a year later.

Since then, National Geographic has regularly tackled climate change through a variety of programs, including the 2016 documentary film Before the Flood (executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio), 2018 documentary Paris to Pittsburgh (about the actions individuals and local communities are taking to combat climate change) and most recently, the Emmy-nominated miniseries Hostile Planet (which aired last spring).

Monroe spoke with Adweek about the network’s shift in strategy when it comes to climate change, how she educates audiences about the topic without making the content feel like “spinach” and the companywide initiative on tap for next year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: This is a subject that has been part of your company’s DNA for quite a long time; this is more than just a network initiative for you, right?
Courteney Monroe: National Geographic has been in existence for 131 years, and I think for every single one of those years, that brand has been dedicated to inspiring people to care about the planet and its preservation. Climate change is core to that notion. We, as a brand—not on television, but through the magazine—first reported on actual climate change in February of 1967. This whole brand—the publishing organization, digital, magazine, television—holds true to the belief that storytelling has the power to change the world, and we focus on using our reach and storytelling to increase awareness of pressing issues that relate to the planet and covey the urgency of the problem. So it’s not new for us, and it’s not a political issue for us at all. We pride ourselves on being completely apolitical. We’re on the side of science and we’re on the side of the planet.

On the television side, we tackle it in a variety of ways. We’ve done very hard-hitting, on-the-nose climate change programming like Before the Flood, which was an account of the changes going on around the world due to climate change. And we distributed that film very differently. We didn’t just air it on the network; we gave it away for free—unauthenticated, commercial-free, on every single platform— because we care about the issue.

With Bloomberg Philanthropies, we did a documentary film called Paris to Pittsburgh, which focused on the action that individuals and communities and local governments in the U.S. can take to combat the threat of climate change. That was in the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. So we’ve done some very focused climate-change programming.

But I would actually argue that our broader dedication to natural history programming, which is celebrating the planet and the species that live on it, are all really designed to get back to that core goal of inspiring people to care about the issues that are facing the planet and care about preserving the planet and species.

How has that kind of programming evolved since you’ve been heading up the network?
In the immediate years before I came, the television business, when we were more in our reality show era, was not doing any of it. They were shying completely away from any programming, because I think the belief at the time was that no one was going to watch that. And look, there is a recognition that we all have to have that people watch television to be entertained and learn something from us, but it can’t feel like spinach. It can’t feel like homework.

So what we’ve tried to do is projects like Before the Flood is a perfect example, which was really compelling. You’re drawn in by Leonardo DiCaprio’s journey. We’re trying to up the level of entertainment in the storytelling. And then, we’re doing really awe-inspiring, very visually spectacular natural history programming like Hostile Planet, which at its core is really focused on the animals, which people love to watch. But really, the narrative of Hostile Planet was about how animals are being forced to adapt to the cruelest curveballs that are being thrown to them by this ever-changing and very volatile planet. So we’re trying to find ways to create programming that people are going to find compelling to watch, and also illuminating and inspiring.

I would argue our Jane Goodall doc [2017’s Jane] is the greatest piece of programming we’ve done that’s a love letter to the planet and why you should care. So it’s through really powerful storytelling that people will find compelling.

If the network wasn’t doing this kind of programming prior to your arrival, what was the first show that changed that?
Before the Flood. It was really the first piece of programming that we launched as part of our new premium programming strategy [in 2016]. And we were very noisy about it. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival exactly three years ago.

"People watch television to be entertained and learn something from us, but it can’t feel like spinach. It can’t feel like homework."
Courteney Monroe

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: September 17, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT