In the spring of 2003, Steven J. Schiffman found himself standing behind a one-way mirror inside an Atlanta office park. On the other side of the glass, oblivious to his presence, were a dozen men and women who had been recruited earlier that week at a nearby shopping mall.
They were complete strangers to him. Yet, in other ways, Schiffman, the executive vice president of marketing for the National Geographic Channel, knew them intimately. He even had a name for them: "New Enthusiasts."
The then-two-year-old National Geographic Channel was struggling to distinguish itself in the crowded cable marketplace and not having much luck. The channel originally tried to forge its identity with a daily news program and a state-of-the-art, 8,000-square-foot glass-enclosed studio looking out onto 17th and M streets NW. However, "Today"-size crowds failed to appear outside the window or in front of the television, and the network later canceled the show.
Schiffman, who previously had marketed Kraft Singles and NASCAR, was charged with polishing the National Geographic Channel's brand and identifying its target audience.
Schiffman and his colleagues at the channel faced a central challenge: how to leverage the stodgy, then-115-year-old National Geographic brand while making it more contemporary.
"People have a lot of nostalgia with respect to the brand," he said in a recent interview in his Washington office. They say things like, 'I remember reading National Geographic with my grandmother.' Except now all those magazines are in the attic."
Schiffman decided that plain old demographics would not tell him enough about the channel's potential viewers and turned to Odyssey, a San Francisco market research firm, which coined the term New Enthusiasts.
New Enthusiasts are a certain kind of consumer. According to Odyssey managing director Sean Baenen, New Enthusiasts are highly educated and generally affluent. "They want flexibility," Baenen said. "They're more likely to have multichannel television not because they watch more television, but because they want more choice."
When it comes to programming, New Enthusiasts are "discerning," as Schiffman puts it. They crave "literate programming" and are not happy with their viewing choices. "The biggest challenge isn't finding them, it's getting them interested in what you have to say," Baenen said.
This group makes up about 17 percent of the viewing households, according to Odyssey.
In surveys, Schiffman found that New Enthusiasts were the most receptive to the concept of the National Geographic Channel. Schiffman and John Ford, the channel's executive vice president for programming, in turn, are expanding the National Geographic "brandwidth" to suit New Enthusiasts' tastes.
Schiffman and his colleagues are shaping such things as the look of the channel, its promotional ads and the prime-time lineup with their target audience in mind.
National Geographic Channel launched in the United States early in 2001 as a joint partnership between National Geographic Ventures, the taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, and Fox Entertainment Group, the company that brought us "Temptation Island." Fox owns a majority share of the National Geographic Channel, and Fox executives fill half of its board of directors.
Fox's deep pockets and distribution muscle gave the National Geographic Society a second crack at the cable market. Twenty years ago, the society passed up a chance to get into cable, at a time when Discovery Communications Inc. was being born. Discovery, now based in Silver Spring, has grown into a global media empire, with 625 million cumulative subscribers and close to $2 billion in annual revenue.
Discovery also has 14 U.S. networks to National Geographic's one. However, comparisons between the two persist. As does a healthy, if lopsided, rivalry.
Discovery won a major coup last year when it signed a multiyear agreement with primatologist Jane Goodall. Until then, Goodall had worked mainly with various print and broadcast outlets of National Geographic as one of the society's Explorers in Residence. When her contract expired, Discovery wooed her to Animal Planet with a deal that included global promotion of her education program, "Roots and Shoots," said Nona Gandelman, spokeswoman for the Jane Goodall Institute.
Last month, National Geographic and Discovery had a rare on-air face-off. On June 7, National Geographic Channel debuted its much-promoted special, "Return to Titanic," about scientist Robert Ballard's return to the wreck of the Titanic for the first time in nearly 20 years. Two days earlier, Discovery Channel programmers aired two of their older Titanic-related shows.
National Geographic executives declared victory, pointing out in an interview that "Return to Titanic" drew a 0.8 rating, higher than the 0.6 rating for Discovery's recycled "Titanic: Answers From the Abyss."
However, the ratings are adjusted for the number of subscribers each network has. Discovery, because it is in millions more homes than National Geographic, actually drew more total viewers. During East Coast prime time, Discovery's "Titanic: Answers From the Abyss," drew an average of 713,000, and the second show, "Titanic Voyage: Untold Stories," drew about 1 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. National Geographic's lead-in show drew an audience of 276,000, and 680,000 watched the premiere of "Return to Titanic."
Fox has worked hard to ramp up National Geographic Channel's subscriber totals. Fox's considerable national sales force hammered out agreements with the 10 largest cable operators to carry the channel, including a recent deal with Cox Communications. (Cox is a part owner of Discovery Communications.) As a result, the National Geographic Channel is now distributed to more than 50 million households after just three years.
The channel's rate of subscriber growth "is unheard of," said Derek Baine, a cable industry analyst with media research firm Paul Kagan Associates in Carmel, Calif.
The race for distribution has not been cheap. To date, Fox has sunk $270 million into National Geographic's U.S. channel, according to spokeswoman Teri Everett. Fox has also sustained losses of approximately $70 million from the U.S. channel alone, Everett said.
Baine said that although National Geographic jumped into the cable business late, it did so just in time. "In 2004, you couldn't buy your way on the air if you wanted to," he said.
With the major deals with cable providers done, Schiffman and Ford have to make sure people tune in.
The two are relying on Odyssey's research not only to market the channel's programs, but to develop them as well. "Marketing and programming are not being thought of as separate . . . so the look, feel and tone of the two are the same," Schiffman said. "A lot of media don't do that."
Schiffman asked New Enthusiasts what benefits they wanted to get out of watching the National Geographic Channel. The research produced six benefits. The channel's target audience wanted to feel "connected with the world" and to be "in the know." They wanted to "escape" and feel "connected to a host." New Enthusiasts also wanted opportunities for "familial bonding" and to experience a sense of "being there" with explorers without leaving their couch.
Schiffman keeps a laminated copy of the six benefits, which he calls his "placemat," posted on a cabinet over his desk. He let the six benefits guide him while he crafted new promotional spots and a new logo that debuted in January.
He chose one spot, in which a young woman running on a treadmill as she watches two men chasing an animal on television increases her speed to keep pace with the men on the screen. "The idea was she got so transfixed that she's thinking she's being there," he said.
Schiffman credits the focus groups of New Enthusiasts with coming up with the channel's new tag line, "Dare to explore," which replaced the less dynamic "Always wonder."
The New Enthusiast-inspired look of the channel is a conscious break from the almost placid pace of old-school National Geographic television spots, which, to Schiffman's chagrin, employed a lot of black backgrounds. By comparison, the promotional ads for the U.S. channel feature what he calls "a warmer red" backdrop, over which appear images of racing clouds or water. The word "channel" is much larger. The spots often feature quick cuts of action-packed images, such as firefighters jumping into a burning forest or waves crashing against a rocky shore.
The channel's new prime-time lineup, which debuts in September, stands out from traditional National Geographic fare as well. One new show still in the works, "Predators at War," revolves around the conflict among several different predators after a watering hole they share starts to disappear. But instead of having, as Schiffman puts it, "the voice of God narrating" as in earlier National Geographic specials, the new show is more similar to a military-history documentary. It views the animals as if they were warring armies. An image of a cheetah, for instance, is frozen while special effects "peel back" the animal's skin to reveal the creature's teeth and nails, which Ford refers to as "armaments."
For National Geographic purists who may not like what they see, channel executives say not to worry. The channel employs an unusual internal check: a standards and practices team.
"I am the gatekeeper of the editorial integrity and factual accuracy [of the channel]," said Scott Wyerman, senior vice president for standards and practices for National Geographic Television and Film.
Wyerman and his staff of about a dozen researchers screen treatments for shows "for factual pitfalls and editorial pitfalls." Wyerman then engages the production side in what John Bowman, the channel's vice president for production, calls "very healthy debates."
Wyerman does not have veto power over shows, though. He called his role "more of a service."
National Geographic officials said that in the end, the brand benefits from the tension between what National Geographic has been and what it can be. "The brand brings to mind associations such as quality and veracity. I don't think that's a hindrance, but a competitive advantage," said Dennis Patrick, president of National Geographic Ventures.
Channel executives said the New Enthusiast-inspired strategy has already produced results. Since the new logo and promotional spots debuted in January, the channel's ratings have increased -- by as much as 73 percent over the previous year, according to Nielsen.
The National Geographic Channel also boasts 250 "blue chip" advertisers such as national financial services companies and luxury car manufacturers -- a figure that puts the channel "on target or a little ahead of target for a network their size," according to media analyst Jack Myers, who publishes a newsletter on the media industry.
Last quarter, the channel's average prime-time audience hovered around 154,000. That compares with the more widely distributed CNN Headline News, which attracted about 198,000 for the same time slot, according to Nielsen.
National Geographic Channel declined to reveal financial figures. But spokesman Russell A. Howard said the channel expects its advertising revenue to grow by 25 percent year over year.
National Geographic Channel is "cash flow positive," Baine said, with gross revenue of $123 million for fiscal year 2004.
"The channel seems to have found its footing," said Peter Mirsky, a media analyst with Fahnestock & Co. "Whether it will be successful remains to be seen."
Schiffman said success lies with the New Enthusiasts. Each quarter, he crisscrosses the country to eavesdrop on focus groups of New Enthusiasts put together by his market research team.
Occasionally, he is surprised by who turns up. Like the truck driver in Sacramento who carried a pack of Marlboros and wore a baseball cap that read, "This Bud's for me."
He didn't look like many New Enthusiasts, who are often professionals. But once the trucker started talking, Schiffman said, he was the real deal, a fact that only renewed Schiffman's faith in the channel's new strategy.
"If we had used standard demographics, we would never have found him," Schiffman said.