National Geographic Television Inc. staked its claim in the documentary cable channel market Wednesday, announcing a partnership with NBC to create channels for the U.S. and international cable market.
The television arm of the 100-year-old Washington-based National Geographic Society brings more than 300 hundred hours of high quality documentaries, the well-known brand name, and a customer base of nine million international subscribers to National Geographic magazine to the joint venture.
NBC, which already runs National Geographic Specials on its network and a block of National Geographic programming on its European cable channel, brings its distribution power in the U.S. and international cable markets and its experience in launching and packaging channels.
Neither company would say how much the joint venture would cost or where its first channel would be launched, though discussions with partners in Europe, Asia and Latin America are taking place. The venture will seek local partners to participate in the launch of the National Geographic Channel in each territory.
The National Geographic Channel will run about 50% National Geographic material and 50% material acquired from outside sources. The channel will largely be documentaries and will incorporate some of the company's children's programming.
In the short term, Discovery Communications Inc. is likely to continue its long domination of the documentary cable market in the U.S. Limited cable system capacity will restrict the National Geographic Channel from launching an immediate competitor to The Discovery Channel.
"As involved as we are in cable in the U.S., we have to be realistic about the prospects for a near-term launch of a new channel," said Tom Rogers, NBC president of cable and business development and executive vice president.
Rogers said the National Geographic Channel would likely be launched in three to four years, when digital television becomes widespread in the U.S.
However, the strength of the National Geographic brand name and NBC's ability to leverage its distribution in Asia and Europe should make the National Geographic Channel a strong international competitor to Discovery.
NBC, which operates CNBC and MSNBC and holds stakes in 17 other U.S. cable channels, also distributes NBC Europe, NBC Asia and an international version of CNBC. The National Geographic channel will be NBC's first branded distribution service and represents NBC's first international channel not based on news.
National Geographic Television has long sold its documentary programming to international partners such as RAI in Italy and Canal Plus in France, but has been slow to establish wholly owned channels. The NBC alliance reflects the growing commercialization of National Geographic Society, a nonprofit organization that spun off the television division in 1995.
The television arm hired a former Discovery Channel executive, Sandy McGovern, as managing director of network development to look at channel prospects earlier this year.
"Though there may be some overlap in the genre of programming (with Discovery), the difference is in the editorial point of view," Tim Kelly, National Geographic Television's president, said in a phone interview. "We have been around for the last 100 years, we did not just pop up in the last 10 years."
The urgency of the venture with NBC was raised by the Discovery Channel's recent alliance with the British Broadcasting Corporation to establish U.S. and International channels using the BBC's vast library of documentary programming.
The Discovery Channel, available in more than 67 million U.S. households, already has a presence in Europe, Asia and South America as well as the Pacific Rim.
"We view international channel distribution as a lengthy relay race, and we have already won the first leg," said Jim Boyle, Discovery Communication's senior vice president corporate communications. "We are out there with a channel fully distributed throughout the world with paying subscribers in more than 140 countries. It's fair to say we have a head start on National Geographic."
The battle between the two corporations has been going on for the past 10 years, since Discovery set up its cable operations in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington. An annual EquiTrend Study of the 200 most trusted media brands has rated National Geographic No. 1 and The Discovery Channel No. 2 for the past two years.