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Meanwhile, Back in the Jungle: Nat Geo's 'Explorer' Adapts, Survives on the Cable Landscape

By Michael Rose

<em>Ultimate Explorer</em> correspondent Lisa Ling, (right) on assignment with smokejumpers in Nepal. Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Television and Film.

One of the longest running series on cable television, National Geographic's Ultimate Explorer, debuted in 1985 as Explorer, just as cable was starting to explode. The series has bounced from channel to channel, but has always managed to stay alive in the television jungle.

Explorer first found a home on Nickelodeon. A year later the series migrated to Ted Turner's TBS, which aired the program for 13 years. In 1999, it was time to move again, and Explorer landed on NBC's cable offshoot, CNBC. Two years later, the series found a cable berth on sister channel MSNBC, where it remains today.

Somehow all this moving hasn't gotten in the way of creating award-winning programs. In the three years Explorer has been on MSNBC, its teams have won more Emmy Awards than any other broadcast or cable news documentary program.

Even though Explorer was hauling in Emmys, the reality of surviving on television didn't keep it from feeling the pressure to change. So, Explorer became Ultimate Explorer, and longtime host Boyd Matson was told that his high-adrenaline "dream job" was over. Series executive producer David Royle launched a quest to find a replacement.

Royle, a veteran producer whose programs have earned a George Polk Award, a duPont Columbia Gold Baton and numerous Emmys, needed something big—something or someone who would get attention.

Royle approached Lisa Ling, the 29-year-old co-host of ABC's morning talk show, The View. While hosting a network hit would be the culmination of a career for most, Ling was ready to give up feigning interest in "a crappy movie that some celebrity's promoting," move to cable and start exploring the world. "It was really a no-brainer," says Ling.

Since she signed on with Ultimate Explorer in January 2003, Ling has either been in the air or on assignment—not unfamiliar territory for her. Before joining The View she was covering international stories for the satellite-fed educational news service Channel One, which sent Ling to Colombia to investigate cocaine processing, Algeria to cover the civil war and Albania to witness the plight of refugees, among many other assignments. After reporting from more than two dozen countries and producing a number of documentaries, sitting in ABC's New York studio didn't hold her interest. "It wasn't enough to just have a massive audience and not do something that you find is fulfilling," she allows.

Ling quickly embraced the new first-person format Royle devised and jumped on board the revamped Ultimate Explorer. It didn't take long for her to demonstrate her stamina to survive the most challenging assignments. She recently returned from the remote regions of Nepal, where she trudged an average of nine hours a day for five days over "the most majestic mountains," in order to track down a team of doctors who were literally helping the blind to see.

Ling found American doctor Geoff Tabin and his cohort, Nepalese doctor Sanduk Ruit— "doctor to the Crown Prince"—as they performed revolutionary microsurgery on the cataracts that plagued numerous blind villagers. Within 24 hours the surgery brought back sight to these patients who live in abject poverty and have little or no access to health care. Most series would be content to just air the story of the heroic surgeons. Ling and her team dug deeper.

She creatively provided context by showing how the poor live in Nepal. Instead of talking to an academic expert, Ling visited a camp of Maoist rebels hidden in the Himalayan foothills and asked them about the government's failure to provide health care. "Every piece I do, it's important that there be some kind of issue that we examine," she explains. "My work is not a travelogue."

While Ling's proven adept at taking the long-trek adventures that have always been a staple for Explorer, one of Royle's other stabs at "Big Name" talent didn't work out. He signed Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Peter Arnett to report for Explorer from Baghdad during the recent war in Iraq. Arnett has never been a favorite of many senior military officers, who viewed him with suspicion due to his critical reporting during the Vietnam War. He became even more controversial after being fired by CNN for his involvement in a disputed documentary. Royle wasn't deterred by the negative baggage and sent Arnett to Baghdad. Unfortunately, the seasoned correspondent granted an interview to Iraqi TV and became the story when his critical remarks about the conduct of the war were broadcast around the world. Fox News called for Arnett's head, and his former employers at CNN gleefully pointed to their rival MSNBC's problem. The pressure was on Royle. "My first thought [was that] Peter just made a bad mistake," says Royle. It soon became clear that it was more serious. "It was an untenable position." Arnett was fired.

This didn't end Royle's commitment to cover the war, and after American troops took Baghdad, the Ultimate Explorer team was there hunting one of the world's greatest archeological treasure troves.

Jason Williams, a freelance producer who's created a number of films, including one that won an Emmy for Explorer, urged Royle to commission a film about the search for the lost treasure of Nimrud. To Williams, and many archeologists, this cache of jewels ranks in importance with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Tutankhammen's tomb. "I like to refer to it as the Crown Jewels of Iraq, but it's kind of a bit more than that, because it's the Crown Jewels meets Tiffany," says Williams.

Finding this horde of solid gold masks, precious jewels and the royal burial artifacts of the ancient Assyrian civilization who ruled this region in 800 BC was a quest worthy of Indiana Jones. While scholars and ordinary Iraqis agreed that it was important to preserve this cultural heritage, the jewels had disappeared after the first Gulf War. Rumors placed them in the personal possession of Saddam Hussein, who was thought to be decorating his palaces with these priceless objects. Others thought they were locked in the basement of the Iraqi Central Bank. Williams wanted to find them and make sure they were safe.

Once again he pitched. Royle hesitated, recalling Geraldo Rivera's infamous unveiling of Al Capone's empty vault. "It's one of the moments that can be somewhat nerve racking. . .but if you want to look inside the box, you're going to have to spend a quarter of a million dollars," Royle admits.

He gave Williams money and a crew, and sent Lisa Ling on the expedition as well. Williams had a hunch where to look when the team landed, but he soon discovered that the bank vaults had been flooded to keep looters out. Turning off the taps and pumping out the water would be a problem anywhere, especially in war-ravaged Baghdad. American Army officials were impressed by William's passion and told him he had 24 hours to figure it out. Somehow Williams tracked down pumps, and his team opened up over 70 manhole covers to find the valve or faucet that was responsible for the flooding. After two weeks of constant pumping, the mud-splattered vault was ready to be opened.

Williams, too, thought about Rivera's safe as the massive steel vault swung open. "I'm delighted to say we had a little bit more than ratings in ours."

Iraqi officials were also happy to scoop up the 40 billion Iraqi dinars and several billion dollars in US currency that was stacked in the safe. What interested Williams and his team was seeing if the jewels were stored with the cash. After some digging they emerged—"pretty mushed up, but it's gold. It cleans up real nice," says Williams.

The story about the discovery of the lost treasure reverberated around the world and put Ultimate Explorer on the map.

While the series is faster paced than its predecessor, and there is more of an emphasis on breaking stories and "investigating critical issues," the traditional core programming of National Geographic—natural history—hasn't been abandoned. It's just received the same makeover treatment and been transformed into what Royle describes as "full immersion" television.

"Ultimate Explorer has killed off the voice of God [the narrator], and these stories are told through the voices of the correspondents," Royle explains. "It's their personal story." While he acknowledges that many independent filmmakers have been producing personal-voice documentaries, and 60 Minutes has been relying on Morley, Mike and Ed to attract viewers for years, he feels his approach is different. "The ways our correspondents are expressing themselves would probably never happen on 60 Minutes."

Using small digital cameras, the correspondents are encouraged to become part of their reports in a way that goes beyond just being presenters doing stand-ups. Mirea Mayor has become a believer in this approach. A former cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins before anthropology "piqued" her attention, Mayor went on to earn a Fulbright Scholarship and is obtaining her PhD from Stony Brook University.

Actually, Mayor hasn't completely abandoned her former calling; she's become "a cheerleader for conservation." She records nightly "video diaries," where she reveals "her deepest, darkest thoughts," about the day's experiences. She's gotten feedback that her video confessionals have broken down the wall between her and the audience. Some might charge that this is merely a theatrical device similar to that employed by reality TV. Royle counters that this "intimate television" is a far cry from reality TV. "This is real life," he insists.

Royle loves what Mayor is doing and completely supports her as she tears back the curtain and lets the viewers in on the process of encountering "incredible creatures" in remote habitats. Like her fellow correspondents she also makes news. Last year Mayor discovered a previously unknown primate species—the mouse lemur of Madagascar, the smallest primate in the world. The lemur has turned into the mascot for Madagascar, and its discovery is fostering eco-tourism and raising awareness inside and outside of the country about the importance of conservation.

Mayor clearly loves what she does. "National Geographic is very much a dream job." But you have to wonder if they'll ever run out of stories.

Not to worry, says Royle, "There's just too much that's interesting and exciting and important out there. We never run out stories."


Michael Rose is a writer / producer / director of factual programming and serves on the IDA Board of Directors.