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National Geographic CEO: Fox deal won't affect our programming

National Geographic Society CEO Gary Knell says the organization will maintain its mission despite 21st Century Fox now owing a controlling interest.
National Geographic Society CEO Gary Knell says the organization will maintain its mission despite 21st Century Fox now owing a controlling interest.
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It was announced this week that National Geographic is expanding its partnership with 21st Century Fox. They've been partners for 18 years on Nat Geo’s TV channels, but now Fox will own controlling interest of the entire company, including National Geographic Magazine.

Gary Knell, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society, joined us on The Frame to talk about the company's history with Fox, the benefits of the new deal, and how National Geographic plans on staying just as committed to science, exploration and education as they were before.

Interview Highlights:

How long has this deal been in the works? What convinced the board of directors at National Geographic that it was the right deal at the right time?

We've had an 18-year partnership with 21st Century Fox around the National Geographic Channel, which reaches half a billion people around the world — I think it's the largest distributed channel in the world. And as I came onboard here at National Geographic a couple of years ago, we've had a series of discussions about the future of media and how we can best work to make sure the channel is successful, which is an important source of programming and revenue for the society.

At the same time, the Society's products around print, digital and social media also were in need of a way of integrating with the different parts of the media offering. So these were organic conversations over the last year, I would say, that took place between the two parties. It was really a natural progression coming out of the long-standing partnership.

How would you describe the nature of that creative partnership?

I think it's a terrific partnership. We've had a shared vision for programming that's had strong leadership, there's an equal number of board members who are very respectful, and I've been impressed by the professionalism on both sides.

I think there's tremendous respect for the National Geographic brand, and I think 21st Century Fox is a company that tends to invest in brands, that invests in respecting the people who run them and the kinds of imaginations and programming qualities that make a brand great.

I assume that, as part of the deal, National Geographic will be giving up its non-profit status. How will that change the nature of the organization?

That's actually not true. What's going to happen is the National Geographic Society will stay as a non-profit, and as part of this transaction it will be massively bulked up in its resources to invest in science, exploration and education.

The scientists and explorers who are given grants by the Society have in many ways been the fuel for programming in the magazine, on digital platforms, and on the channels — the storytelling engines, as we like to call them.

And those kinds of things will not only be safeguarded, but they'll be more than doubled in the future through a $1 billion endowment that will now be permanently created for the Society as a result of this transaction. That's a very important component, and a reason to do this.

Let's talk about the magazine itself for a second. In a recent story, the Washington Post described it as "troubled," and its circulation has been plummeting. What kind of commitment is there from all of the parties to keep it alive as a print product?

We're very committed to the print product and I think this [deal] actually gives it a longer lifeline. And I would not say it is troubled. I think that's not true. But as anyone knows, the print industry is seeing a fairly rapid decline overall, so it's no surprise that National Geographic, like others, is seeing those difficult headwinds in a very turbulent time when digital engagement, especially through mobile platforms, has taken over for many consumers.

Reasonable people can disagree about what National Geographic's brand means, but there are some people who look at the cable channel and say that shows like "Doomsday Preppers" or "Banged Up Abroad" are not really quite in the spirit of the quality of the journalism that the magazine has done. Plus, now you're in bed with a media mogul who really doesn't believe in climate change. When you look at those two things together, how do you weigh them?

First of all, we've been involved with 21st Century Fox for nearly 20 years and there's never been a moment of editorial interference. The programing decisions that were made were jointly made, and I think the new slate of programming is more closely connected to the brand that you've described.

And that's more in line with shows like "Cosmos" or "The Years of Living Dangerously," which is a huge show on climate change that aired globally on the National Geographic international channels.

We're connecting a cover story in the magazine in November around climate change to an Explorer's show on the channel in November around climate change, so people are going to have to judge us by what we do, not what's said about us.

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