Reflexive Responses and NatGeo

When the news broke last year about Rupert Murdoch's Fox Corp. gobbling up most of the assets of the National Geographic Society, including its vaunted publishing operations, the repulsion was reflexive by many in the academic and publishing community. This was not unreasonable, as the NatGeo cable network had dabbled in reality television that certainly deviated from the brand promise of the "gold box." How wicked could tuna be? How many hoarders or diggers could they profile?

A recent article in BusinessWeek sheds a brighter light on the story leading up to NatGeo's sale of its core assets to Fox, as well as what has transpired since. While much of the concern revolved around Rupert Murdoch's well-deserved reputation as a hard-nosed businessman and global warming skeptic, it turns out the NatGeo sale and subsequent management is falling to his son, James, who is both an ardent environmental and science champion. He and his wife run Quadrivium, which is devoted to science education and causes like preserving European fisheries and other natural resources.

He is quoted by a co-worker as saying:

I wish we could do more stories about why people don't believe science.

To reverse NatGeo's declining fortunes, James Murdoch has brought in a ton of media talent and begun to implement an HBO-like programming vision. As the leader of this effort, Courteney Monroe, who worked at HBO for years, described it:

Our strategy before was a volume play. It was a lot of low-cost hours. Quantity over quality. We're inverting that.

An example of this is an upcoming miniseries, Mars, which is being produced by Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, and Brian Grazer. 

In addition, management has taken a notoriously dysfunctional and siloed organization and put them on the same page. This means that for their upcoming miniseries on the Red Planet, the magazine will coordinate a package on Mars, the Web team will develop content to match, and the book division will publish a Mars book. In years prior, pulling off this kind of coordinated splash was not feasible.

This is not what people reflexively expected last year -- a Murdoch-led overhaul emphasizing quality and led by a family member devoted to science and environmental issues. 

Let's hope it works.