Television

'We deliver natural history with a powerful brand at a global level' : National Geographic Wild senior VP, Development Janet Han Vissering

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A new entrant in the infotainment space, Nat Geo Wild launched in India last year to cater to the need for high quality wild life and natural history content.

The channel, which is on two DTH platforms, is looking to push distribution with a clear focus on digital. It is also doing an India specific show called Wild India which goes on air next year.

National Geographic Wild senior VP, Development Janet Han Vissering is responsible for commissioning over 250 hours of original programming per year for broadcast in 166 countries, 330 million homes and 34 languages worldwide.

Vissering manages a team to source and develop all original programming for Nat Geo Wild. Previously she was SVP of Strategic Development and Co-finance for seven years. As part of Development, she has been responsible for developing key programmes such as Engineering Connections, Big Bigger Biggest and Animal Autopsy among other highly rated shows.

Prior to acquiring her current position, Vissering served as vice president of International Acquisitions at NGCI from August 1998 to March 2000. She joined NGCI from Discovery Networks International, where she was Head of Program Acquisitions and Development from 1995 to 1998.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com‘s Ashwin Pinto, Vissering talks about the challenges of creating unique content in an increasingly competitive television environment.

Excerpts:

What challenges do you face as a content production executive with more lifestyle and entertainment channels launching?

It is the same challenge in India as it is around the world. The expansion of technology and bandwidth is allowing more channels to live together.

How do you make programming different?

My job is made easier as we deliver a channel that serves an audience that is begging for animals and natural history. They want family friendly content.

We deliver natural history with a powerful brand at a global level. That is how we differentiate ourselves. At NGC we deliver by expanding genres like science, adventure, history and exploration.

In terms of how Nat Geo Wild is programmed and scheduled, is there a difference between India and other countries like Singapore and Malaysia?

It is independent. It is scheduled differently. We do shows to the viewers‘ choice which are relevant. People in Hong Kong love fish based shows. Here shows on snakes and big cats do really well. People are used to seeing these animals. Indians empathise with shows featuring these animals better. It is easier to identify with Wild even if it is not India specific. The flagship is harder as there are more genres.

We have different genres of wildlife film. We leave it to our regions as to how they schedule to conform to the local needs.

For Nat Geo Wild, what have been the learnings from NGC?

You learn logistical things. We also learned the priority of customisation. We know what animals have rated better in each region. We know what animals do not rate. It was a great way for Nat Geo Wild to dip its toes into the water to find out what works and what does not. This is not just from a content basis but also from a logistical point of view. We know what the lead time is in terms of scheduling shoots.

What response has Nat Geo Wild received in India and globally since launch?

We are number one in our genre in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. We also had record ratings in the UK last week. We are a successful young network. In India we are on two DTH platforms - Dish TV and Tata Sky. Our focus is on digital. It is still young days here.

Nat Geo Wild is programmed & scheduled differently. In India, shows on snakes & big cats do really well. People in Hong Kong, on the other hand, love fish based shows

What is its USP vis-a-vis other channels and shows dedicated to animals and wildlife?

We have a foundation of scientific, factual research. No other network offers this perspective. Being part of Nat Geo offers us access to many places that other filmmakers do not gain access to. I think that also we feature scientists that are a part of the National geographic Explorer base. Heinrich Sala is a marine biologist and we are making a show on sharks that features his work. Access and scientific research are our USPs.

We have the foundation of all our shows on factual research and science. We are the only network that has this guarantee. We are always about animals and the wild world. The main goal is to bring viewers closer to that natural world.

Why didn‘t National Geographic launch a show for wildlife earlier?

We launched the channel as wildlife is only one of many genres that National Geographic Channel has. Wildlife was a small part of their lineup but it consistently delivered ratings. We looked across the market and saw the channel that would meet viewer needs for high quality natural history content. This need was not being met. Viewers want programming that is safe that everybody in their family can watch. They want a channel that will always deliver high quality visuals, information and be a destination channel. We look at launching later as a benefit. We saw what was not there.

Could you give me an overview of how the production process works at Nat Geo Wild?

I work out of the DC office. As part of this, we have eight executives that reach out to over 300 production companies around the world. They work with outsourcing ideas. We also have a global website where anybody can actually submit their projects into. I on behalf of Wild meet with the National Geographic team to sift through the best ideas every two weeks. On a monthly basis, we have greenlight meeting with all departmental heads and the head of programming Jeff Daniel. This is where projects are greenlit and put into production.

Before giving an idea the go ahead, what do you look for?

I look for a myriad of things. I look for exclusivity. What is the USP? Why are we doing this show now and why are we using this filmmaker? There has to be great cinematic value. The market is competitive. There are a lot of options. I have to give a show that nobody can do anywhere else. This is key for me. Our shows are shot 100 per cent in HD.

How much research goes into making a successful show like Engineering Connections on NGC?

This is a show that I really pushed for. It involved a UK star Richard Hammond. He has passion for engineering. What we wanted to do was show all collections of how a guitar vibrating in a room can relate to an oil platform. The show builds a bridge between different subject matters. It took over a year to do. We picked ideas which were iconic like a Formula One vehicle but had really good connection an odd connection. A+B has to equal C.

Every step of production including the music was important to me. Hammond was immersive. We had to make sure that he was okay in doing stunts. There was one moment where he was strung up on a bridge and he was scared. That made great television.

Could you talk about the upcoming ‘Wild India‘ series on Nat Geo Wild?

This goes on air early next year. This will be a three hour special. It is a coffee table celebration of India and its wildlife. We felt that there hadn‘t been a really good natural history series on India for ten years. The last good show was Land Of The Tiger that the BBC has made. Things have moved on since then. A whole new young audience is interested in India‘s natural history. The technology has also moved on.

We have more interesting camera techniques to capture intimate animal behaviour. We have HD cameras, night film cameras, infra red and thermal cameras. We can, thus, film in the night. We want people to experience a much more personal wildlife.

Did the economic downturn put pressure on budgeting?

The global economic situation has made everyone think twice. But we continue to do projects. I scrutinise every penny more. It is up to us and the filmmakers to make sure that the investment being made is sound. So we rely on reliable production companies like Icon Films. The production team on Wild India is largely Indian. The crew is from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat. So cameramen can be on the field for longer. We do not have long haul flights to pay for. We can be more responsive.

You have to respond to the natural environment. This is a homegrown product which is important. With any film whether it is from Russia, Asia, Japan or Scandinavia, I want to make sure that filmmakers can get access and give viewers the feeling of being right there next to the environment.

What have been the learnings from localisation in terms of what works and what does not globally?

I am in a lucky position that wildlife has few cultural barriers. Everyone loves tigers, big cats, snakes. There are few cultural issues I have to worry about.
Is it a collaborative effort working with production companies?

Yes! We always have one of our Nat Geo Wild or NGC executive producers who is working in partnership with an executive producer from the production company side by side all the way through the film. We have an internal production group from National Geographic television that make shows with us often featuring our own scientists.

How long does it take for a show to be made?

It depends. Wild India will take a year to make. They will shoot in March and April. It takes at least six months but most shows take nine months. We can do a quick turnaround on a topical subject matter, though. When the Gulf oil spill happened in the US, we did a show within four weeks of that accident.

But natural history does not work on human timelines. We have to work hand in hand with Mother Nature. A tiger will show up when it wants to. Animals are unpredictable. If they were predictable, my life would be easier bur probably less exciting. It is the moment of capturing that bit of footage that makes it worthwhile. To give you an idea of how challenging making wildlife content can be, on Wild Mississippi the temperature was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. We had to use urine to prevent the camera from freezing.

What are the trends we are seeing in environmental and wildlife film making?

Having a first point of view, less narration and giving the impression that people are there next to the cameraman is very important now. Less is more. Beautiful cinematic images are important. Having characters that can deliver adventure and the journey of exposition in a very visceral way is also important. People want to be vowed.
What role is HD playing in boosting the documentary genre?

Each show is on HD. This is a non negotiable discussion with any show going on air. This is a must before we commission anything. From a visual aspect it is different and an enhancement from Standard Definition. When you watch Wild India, you will feel that you are flying on a plane over India on your own. On Standard Definition images are cloudy. It is like looking through muddy waters. On HD you get the true essence of where you are. You can almost smell where you are. We will deliver 100 hours of premiere HD content every year.
Balancing traditional story telling techniques with technical innovation is key for the success of factual content. How does NGC manage this?

We have the ability to film wildlife in HD at night. This gives you the perspective of three cameras that allow you to see how animals work at night.
What other recent commissions have been done?

Following Wild India we also have Wild Mississippi, Secret Brazil. These are three part specials like Wild India. That will celebrate the journey into natural areas. We also have hosted shows that are young and contemporary. We will have a show featuring a heli cowboy in Australia. At the end of the year we have our annual Big Cat Week to bring awareness about conservation. We will have shows on the Jaguar, American Cougar and the Indian Cloud Leopard.
How does NGC use new media platforms like YouTube to leverage its brand?

We have our site, links and blogs. This is additional information for viewers. We will expand on this as our network grows. As we send filmmakers to exotic places, we will look for conversations on Twitter and other media.
Are you looking at long term projects?

Absolutely. We are still in negotiations though. We are also a young network.

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