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Upfront and Personal: Nat Geo continues its 'scripted' expansion

Broadening its scripted borders, National Geographic Channel (US) ordered a second season of "Genius" and announced three new development projects at its recent upfront presentation.

During the April 19 evening event at Manhattan's Jazz at Lincoln Center, Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, called "Genius" a "turning point in the transformation of the network." National Geographic Channel's first scripted show focused on Albert Einstein during its freshman season.

The channel's profile has been rising since 21st Century Fox Inc. made a $725 million infusion in an expansion of its joint venture with the National Geographic Society in September 2015. The brand is now returning 27% of every dollar the partnership generates back to the National Geographic Society to fund its platforms and programs to preserve the planet, said Brendan Ripp, executive vice president of sales and partnerships at National Geographic. Fox Networks Group sells advertising for National Geographic Channel as part of its broad-based portfolio.

Bowing in 171 nations on April 28, "Genius" is supported by the largest marketing campaign in the channel's history, including a promo featuring series star Geoffrey Rush that ran right after Lady Gaga's halftime performance during FOX (US)'s coverage of Super Bowl LI. The show's marketing also features what Monroe called "station domination" at New York's Grand Central terminal, where subway turnstiles, stairwells and walls are bedecked in images from the series.

The second campaign of "Genius" will again be produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and Imagine Television, with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard serving as executive producers. Grazer told attendees that the subject of the anthology series' sophomore run will be revealed during the finale of the first season.

The duo also worked on "Mars," the six-part, hybrid series that was part documentary, part scripted, which will return for a second season in 2018. Monroe said the initial run ranked as the "most-DVR'd series" in network history and its second-most-watched overall.

Also receiving plenty of play during the presentation: "The Long Road Home," a scripted military drama starring Kate Bosworth, Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter and Jeremy Sisto, among others. It's based on the book of the same name written by ABC News' Martha Raddatz.

The military was also on display for "Chain of Command," a limited series in which National Geographic Channel is partnering with the Pentagon, providing a look at the U.S.'s mission in Afghanistan and how the nation is battling global extremism. Still in the filming phase, upfront attendees saw a glimpse of "declassified" footage of "boots on the ground to the highest command," including a depiction of a deplaning President Trump.

Nat Geo also announced three new scripted development projects. Sonar Entertainment's "The Birth Of The Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex And Launched A Revolution" is adapted from Jonathan Eig's 2014 book of the same name, while "The Hot Zone" is about the origins of the Ebola virus, from Lynda Obst, Scott Free and Fox 21 TV Studios. The third turns the lens inward, as the untitled project reverts to the 1960s, telling the stories behind Nat Geo's first documentaries in Siberia and Australia.

The network also spotlighted a number of high-profile documentary projects at the upfront. From Shawn "Jay Z" Carter and The Weinstein Co., six-part series "Race" will delve into issues including crime and punishment, wealth inequality, and activism, said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Weinstein Co., at the event.

Premiering this fall, "The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman" represents an expansion of the actor's "The Story of God" franchise. This time Freeman, who was also on stage during the upfront, will bring viewers on a global journey as he meets with different cultures, while examining themes that unite all humans.

The network is back in business with Katie Couric, as it announced it has committed to a still-untitled six-part series in which she will talk with thought leaders from around the world. The project, also set for a global presentation, comes on the heels of Couric's "Gender Revolution" documentary with the network.

Perhaps the most visibly arresting project showcased at the upfront was "The Strange Rock," a cinematic look at the "fragile underlying living conditions of our planet." Attendees saw stunning vistas of a volcanic lake where lava moves at up to 60 miles per hour and shoots lava balls 200 feet into the air.

Currently in the midst of 100 weeks of shooting, "The Strange Rock," which Monroe called "'Cosmos' meets 'Planet Earth' meets 'Gravity' on steroids," is culling images from an array of specialty cameras positioned around the world and in outer space. Appropriately enough, Nat Geo brought out four astronauts, whom Monroe said will "bring perspectives from those who have seen Earth from above" to the project's storytelling.