As a child of the 1980s, The National Geographic Explorer theme song by Elmer Bernstein (listen here) is burned into my mind. The show debuted in 1985, and I cannot clearly recall any of the specific shows, nor did I remember that it actually aired on Nickelodeon at first, but that was a channel I watched constantly.
What I am sure of is that by the 2000s, I’d lost track of the series. By 2010, so had NatGeo, cancelling it after airing more than 2,000 films over 25 years.
Sunday, Explorer returns. Cue the theme song!
But wait: this is not the show from our childhood.
National Geographic Explorer, reimagined
The new Explorer aims to be more modern, Explorer executive producer Robert Palumbo told me. When I asked if it was going to play on nostalgia, he said, “not at all”—though I’m happy to report the theme song survives. “We’re really looking at the inspiration of a lot of what’s been happening in the documentary world since Explorer was off the air,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes in documentary. Of course, shows like The Jinx, which is so innovative and incredible. Shows like Vice, also, so innovative and incredible.”
NatGeo is now looking to compete and innovate in an area that it once dominated. “This territory is territory that was once owned by NatGeo, and Explorer was in that world,” Palumbo told me. “Our goal is to make this show very contemporary—use the magazine as inspiration, but to produce shows that are more immersive and more modern documentary, more experimental in some ways than Explorer was in the past.”
National Geographic Channel plans to air Explorer as a monthly series, linked to articles in the magazine, starting with 13 episodes in season one. It starts with Warlords of Ivory, an investigation into the ivory trade that leads unexpectedly to the subject of a 2012 meme.
A second season may go weekly, but for now, it’s monthly, with the magazine article coming out mid-month, a few weeks before the TV show airs. Will it ever air serialized documentaries such as The Jinx? “It’s quite possible,” he said, though right now it’s just one-off episodes. He noted, however, that NatGeo as a network is still producing serialized nonfiction, including a show he’s producing, Red Planet, a four-hour hybrid series about colonizing Mars that comes from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
While Palumbo said they admire Vice, National Geographic won’t copy what they’ve done. “We find Vice to be inspirational in many ways,” he told me. “We’re very happy that audiences respond to documentary, respond to that kind of immersive, foreign correspondent documentary that they do. We’re very happy about that and encouraged by their success. But we wouldn’t do the same thing that they do. Our goal is to do our own thing—to look over our shoulder at them a little bit, to make sure that what we’re doing is not-old fashioned, and is contemporary.”
For example, Explorer will air an episode about climate change that takes a “semi-comedic approach. We’re treating climate change through the five stages of grief.” Palumbo said that it’s “very hard-hitting, great reporting, but it’s framed in a more entertaining way, which is kind of a new thing for Explorer. It’s something we’re experimenting with.”