There really was a time when basic-cable was kind of empty. It had reruns and wrestling and music videos, but few original shows that amounted to much. "Explorer" entered that turf in 1985, becoming one of the best of a small field; now it returns as a monthly series. It's opener (Sunday, Aug. 30) is dark and grim, but also admirably ambitious. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
back, returning to a cable world it helped create.
This was once one of
the best shows on basic-cable, almost by default. It kept getting
better, but so did everything else. It had five networks, famous
hosts, piles of awards ... then faded out.
But now it's back as
a monthly series, starting with something it couldn't have imagined
in the early days – a dangerous plunge into the world of warlords,
elephant slaughter and tusk-smuggling.
“I wanted to go to
the worst of the worst places, where the most violent people are
going after elephants,” said Bryan Christty, head of National
Geographic Channel's criminal-investigation unit.
The channel wasn't
launched until 1997 overseas and 2001 in the U.S., but “Explorer”
began in 1985.
Back then, National
Geographic did occasional big projects for PBS, but was eyeing this
new cable world. It planned a simple magazine show, using films that
had already been shot around the world.
The competition was
scarce back then. At times, “Explorer” was the only American
buyer for a documentary; it filled up three hours every Sunday.
Soon, it began
adding its own films. “It's the longest-running documentary series
in cable-television history, with more than 2,000 films and nearly 60
Emmys,” said Tim Pastore, now the channel's head of original
Along the way, it
kept moving. It started on Nickelodeon ... spent 13 years on TBS ...
had brief stints on CNBC and MSNBC ... and finally reached the
National Geographic Channel in 2004.
It also tried famous
hosts – Tom Chapin, Robert Urich, Boyd Matson, Lisa Ling, even
Robert Ballard, the man who found the “Titanic.” But by 2011-12,
it was down to occasional films, then disappeared.
Its return links
with a fresh philosophy at the channel.
The NGC reality
shows (heavy on Alaska) may have been indistinguishable from those on
other cable channels; the change began when NGC and Fox revived
“Cosmos,” said Courteney Monroe, the channel's CEO. “I think
'Cosmos' really demonstrated to us that smart, entertaining and
high-quality ... storytelling and Hollywood production techniques can
really draw an audience.”
With its global
reach -- “we are in 171 countries,” Monroe said – Geographic
can amp up its budgets and its ambitions. The “Explorer” debut
offers a prime example.
“We created fake
ivory tusks,” said producer J.J. Kelley, “and did something
nobody's done before, put a GPS tracker” inside.
With that tracker,
he said, they followed the tusks through three African countries and
“into some very dangerous places where everyone else had AK-47s and
we had cameras.”
The result is
chilling, Christy said. It's “a new face of ivory-poaching –
warlords funding themselves.”
And it's the sort of
film no one would have imagined, in the early days of cable and
return as monthly series, National Geographic Channel
-- Opener is 8 p.m.
Sunday (Aug. 30), rerunning at 1 a.m.; also, 9 a.m. Sept. 6.
-- Preceded by
reruns of past “Explorer” hours, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and
Sunday; followed, at 9 p.m. Sunday, by “Elephant Queen” on sister
channel NatGeo Wild.
-- Upcoming editions
include “Lost City of the Monkey God,” “Cult of Mary” and
Bill Nye's “The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief”