Special Earth Week Bonus EXCLUSIVE Interview with Gary Knell, Chairman of National Geographic Partners

It has been a huge year for National Geographic, including winning an Oscar for “Free Solo” as Best Documentary film and merging forces with Disney.  We caught up with Gary to talk about all that, plus his vision for National Geographic’s next phase.

ODP:   At a time when content is limitless, what has kept National Geographic at the apex of the media world when it comes to conservation journalism?

GK: For 131 years, National Geographic has been driven by our mission to help people better understand the world and their role in it. Through our relationship with the nonprofit National Geographic Society, we use our media platforms to amplify the important work they are doing in conservation, science, exploration, and education. In turn, we have unfiltered access to their explorers, grantees, and projects that are helping to catalyze action to work towards a planet in balance. It’s a virtuous cycle of storytelling that no other media organization can replicate.

ODP:   Congratulations — National Geographic’s Instagram following is now over 107 million — clearly, people are moved by your visual images.  How can these images change the conversation about conservation?

GK: Thank you- we have surpassed Nicki Minaj and most of the Kardashians, and now we are trying to catch Justin Bieber. Our success is proof that people are looking for more than selfies and food shots on the platform- they want to be engaged and inspired. Our account is managed by over 130 Nat Geo photographers who post compelling, impactful content that has the power to make a real difference in the world.

ODP:  With your new home in the Disney world, in what ways do you hope to carry on the National Geographic legacy of encouraging conservation and stewardship?

GK: Our new partnership with Disney significantly increases our scale and reach, bringing our mission-driven content to an even wider audience. We plan to harness the power of The Walt Disney Company’s enormous assets to connect millions of people around the world to National Geographic through Disney’s television networks, parks, products, experiences, and direct-to-consumer platforms including Hulu and the recently announced Disney+.

ODP:   Do you think there is a greater appetite in the public today for National Geographic’s unique content — is your share of the media market expanding in your view?  And do you think that is a result of an increased public interest in conservation issues?

GK: Definitely. We are seeing an increasing demand from audiences to not just be entertained- but to be engaged. Studies have shown that consumers are gravitating towards brands and outlets that have a purpose, and National Geographic is at the forefront of that. Purpose-driven brands build stronger emotional connections with consumers that go beyond the typical transactional relationship.

ODP:   National Geographic has not shied away from covering the climate crisis facing us today.  How can National Geographic help turn the tide on climate change?

GK: We are dedicated now, more than ever, to using our arsenal of content to illustrate the most effective ways to combat climate change.  For years, we have been ringing the alarm bells about this issue and now we are ringing them louder than ever. Climate change is covered in just about every issue of National Geographic magazine, as well as across our other platforms including on television, on social and digital, and most recently, in our “Paris to Pittsburgh” documentary with Bloomberg which chronicles what is being done in cities around the world since the Paris Agreement.

The results of a new NPR/Ipsos poll found that 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change but more than half of the teachers surveyed said they don’t teach it. The teachers cited several reasons for not building climate change into their curriculum including their own lack of knowledge on the subject as well as concerns about parent complaints. Using our reach to increase awareness and education about climate change can help address this issue and inspire real action. It’s part of why we come to work each day at National Geographic.

ODP:  What’s your favorite “coming attraction” from National Geographic and is there another Oscar in your future?

GK:  I’m really excited about “The Hot Zone”, based on the eponymous international best-seller by Richard Preston. Starring Julianna Margulies as Dr. Nancy Jaax, it is inspired by a true story about the origins of Ebola and its arrival on US soil in 1989. “The Hot Zone” premieres on Memorial Day and we can’t wait for people to see it.

And, coming off of our Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo”, our National Geographic Documentary Films team has a lot of exciting things in the works. We’re proud to have acquired the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced environmental documentary “Sea of Shadows” which won the Audience Award for world cinema documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  “Sea of Shadows” showcases the heroic efforts to save the endangered vaquita whale in the Sea of Cortez. All this and the National Geographic Documentary Films banner is only two years old- we’re just getting started.

Thanks so much, Gary.  We can’t wait to see these entertaining new shows.   And we are thrilled to think of the potential for impact now that National Geographic has teamed up with Disney!

ICYMI in theaters: We enthusiastically recommend “Free Solo” – to watch it, click here!

Starring Julianna Margulies, “THE HOT ZONE” premieres this Memorial Day.

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