From C21 Medisa: Ready to rock
Former Channel 4 documentary chief Hamish Mykura talks to Clive
Whittingham about his new role with National Geographic and how the
network is revolutionising its output.
Rarely has there been such an about-turn in the programming ethos of a
network as the one National Geographic is currently attempting to pull
off at its US and international channels.
From a position where the output skewed 80/20 in favour of one-off
docs, Nat Geo is attempting to completely reverse that in favour of
character-led, returnable series in double-quick time under CEO David
Lyle, who was appointed in August 2011.
To that end National Geographic Channels International hired Hamish
Mykura, former head of documentaries at the UK’s Channel 4, at the turn
of the year to lead a London-based commissioning hub.
Although Mykura praises the UK production community for swiftly
adapting to Nat Geo’s demands he does admit that initially it was a
challenge. “When I came here I had to say to people ‘Whatever ideas
you’ve brought in to pitch me, let’s not even discuss them, let’s
discuss some other ideas, because they won’t be right for what I’m
looking for,’” he says.
Mykura, officially Nat Geo’s executive VP and head of international
content, now finds himself up against Julian Bellamy, with whom he used
to work at C4 where Bellamy was chief creative officer. Bellamy is now
creative director and head of production and development at Discovery
Networks International, heading a commissioning team in London. Mykura
admits they are now chasing similar programmes.
“Julian and I worked closely together at C4,” he says. “There
certainly will be some of our programmes that could work on different
channels, but there are certain values to Nat Geo that make it distinct.
There are some areas where we would try to dominate, and even though
other channels may try to have a crack at them, we’ll always be the
place where people expect that kind of programming – the big exploration
adventures, for example.”
Like Discovery, and others besides, the key isn’t so much the subject
matter as the formats, which now have to be entertainment-based and
returnable. “There are values that people identify with clearly for Nat
Geo,” Mykura says. “That yellow rectangular border that we all know from
the magazine carries a lot of meaning and you know that programmes are
going to have a certain set of values and be a certain kind of programme
about a certain kind of subject: the outdoors, anthropology,
exploration, engineering, history, man and the environment.
“What we can do is still be true to these values but make a different
kind of programme about these subject areas, so the programmes
themselves don’t have to be stuffy, formal or old fashioned in any way.
“The challenge is finding new ways of making programmes about
anthropology or engineering that are entertaining and character-led but
at the same time stay true to what Nat Geo is.”
Nat Geo may be a later convert than some of its rivals but it’s
certainly now singing from the same hymn sheet as most other factual
channels and producers around the world. However, the trend towards more
character-driven, returnable series has led to accusations of dumbing
down. When History is airing Pawn Stars and Swamp People and Nat Geo is
commissioning competition series, is it valid to wonder if the ‘fact’
has gone from factual? Where is the history on History? Where is the
geography on Nat Geo?
Delegates at History Makers International in New York in January and
Sheffield Doc/Fest in June asked as much, but Mykura brushes aside
concerns about reduced factual content in modern series.
“I’ve been in the world of documentary making in TV for 15 or 20
years now,” he says. “Every year you find people standing up at forums
like History Makers or Doc/Fest saying documentary is in terminal
decline, it’s dumbing down, it’s disastrous. Yet every year there seems
to be more of it around, more variety in the way it’s being made, more
creativity in it, better and better people getting drawn into making
“I don’t think it’s true to say that documentary is being dumbed down
or new formats are less intelligent. There isn’t any evidence of that
at all. Finding new ways of making programmes and refreshing them is
always a good thing. People will always tell you the old way was better,
but the old way often wasn’t better. There are a lot of good-old-days
merchants in this business.”
Mykura was with C4′s factual department for a decade, most recently
combining the role of head of documentaries with being head of its
diginet More 4.
BBC Storyville editor Nick Fraser told delegates at Sheffield he felt
it was a “minor scandal” that C4 had bumped a lot of its serious
factual content on to More 4 and that nobody had complained.
Mykura talks a lot about the balance of schedules, and insists there
is still a role for serious one-offs, on both the domestic terrestrial
channel he left behind and the international network he has joined.
“What we’re doing here corresponds very much with what I’ve been doing
at More 4 and the documentary department at C4, where the moves were
towards series that you could really return.
“There’s always going to be room for one-offs and singles but they
have to be special and really stand out. You don’t just want these
programmes to be talked about on the TV pages of the newspaper, you want
them to be in the news pages.”
Mykura points to filmmaker James Cameron’s dive to the bottom of the
Mariana Trench in the Pacific, which made for an excellent one-off film,
as an example of a strong character and concept that attracted media
coverage. “A lot of it is about getting the mix right. If you’re having
more formatted long-running series then there needs to be space within
that for single films and for events that have one-off impact and
distinction,” he says. “It’s about making sure there is a channel
ecology that has a mix of programmes going on. It’s always one of the
things I’ve been focused on at the channels I’ve worked for, and it’s
the same at Nat Geo.”
The first commission to come from Mykura’s programming hub is
Strippers: Cars for Cash, a 10x60′ competition series in which UK
classic car enthusiasts take apart old bangers to see who can make the
most profit by selling the parts. Attaboy TV is producing for an autumn
Two US factual shows, Doomsday Preppers and Family Guns, are also
rolling out internationally, and Nat Geo is hoping to enjoy some of the
success History had with Hatfields & McCoys when it airs its own
dramatised historical production Killing Lincoln early next year.
Family Guns, made by UK indie Firecracker Films, focuses on a father
and son who run the biggest military memorabilia dealership in New
Jersey, According to Mykura, the series shows the strength of the UK
production industry and explains why Discovery and Nat Geo have chosen
to set up international commissioning hubs in London. “The key is having
close relationships with the production community,” he says. “The UK
really is at the forefront of factual production. We’re talking about
what we’re after, they’re bringing us ideas and we get on the same
“The objective is to be working with the best people in town and to
be the first port of call for people with new ideas so people get into
the habit of bringing their best ideas to us.”
The keys to achieving that, according to Mykura, are responding
quickly, being clear in what the company wants and paying well. Without
going into specifics, he says his team is paying fees on a par with
terrestrial channels, if it likes the content enough.
Also key is Nat Geo’s approach to rights retention and this issue
reared its head last month, after John McVay, CEO of indie trade body
Pact, voiced concerns about UK indies handing over all rights to
commissions from international pay-TV networks in the UK.
Responding to McVay’s concerns at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Mykura
said: “There is a pre-conception on the part of some of the UK producers
that there are absolutely no deal on rights available from the
international broadcasters, so we might as well not bother… But
actually, when people come and have those conversations, they are often
surprised by the number and range of different rates and deals that can
be done,” said Mykura.
“I’ve been dazzled by the extraordinary number and complexity of ways
in which these rights packages can sometimes be carved up, and also by
the number of coproduction partners that we can deal with… These deals
can be very lucrative and good business for production companies.”
Mykura’s team has recently been completed at senior level with the
appointment of Edward Sayer, formerly with ITV Studios, as commissioning
editor alongside Hannah Demidowicz. Mykura previously promoted Matt
Taylor to oversee programming and content for the international market,
after he previously looked after Europe, and brought in Jules Oldroyd,
with whom he worked at C4, as VP of programming and strategic
development. “That’s basically my team in place. I have all the major
roles appointed and we’re ready to rock,” says Mykura.
Rocking to a new tune certainly, but he’s also keen to maintain the traditional Nat Geo values.