21st Century Fox just bought most of National Geographic, which will become a for-profit operation. The surprise deal expands Fox’s ownership of NatGeo properties: the National Geographic television channels were already a joint venture between Fox (run by CEO James Murdoch, son and brother to executive co-chairmen Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, respectively) and the nonprofit National Geographic Society.
Now most NatGeo properties—its iconic magazine, its digital properties, its book publishing, its travel businesses—will be under the same ownership structure as the TV channels in an entity called National Geographic Partners. That will be run by Declan Moore, who is currently National Geographic’s chief media officer. Gary Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, will become the first board chair of the new organization, a position that will “alternate annually,” the release says.
James Murdoch called National Geographic “‘a very healthy brand’ that can become even larger if all the pieces are marketed by one organization,” Paul Farhi reported in the Washington Post.
The National Geographic Society, however, will remain a nonprofit and retain control of the National Geographic Museum on 17th St., Northwest. So, Murdoch probably doesn’t get the Spinosaurus statue. But he’s getting a lot of other stuff.
• A smaller flagship magazine. It’s important to note that this expanded partnership is with 21st Century Fox. Two years ago 21st Century Fox split from the old News Corp, creating one company focused on TV and film and another, the “new” News Corp, which ended up with the company’s print news assets, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post in the US.
So National Geographic magazine will not have many print peers in the new structure, a reflection of its diminished status in the NatGeo ecosystem. As at most print publications, circulation has tumbled at National Geographic, nearly 20 percent in the last three years according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. But it still moves a lot of those yellow-bordered books: Total paid and verified circulation in June 2015 was 3,404,745.
• Some big TV channels. But contrast that with the National Geographic channels’ reach: They’re available in 90 million homes in the US alone. This past March, National Geographic Channel had its biggest month ever, thanks to Killing Jesus, based on a book by…Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. Meanwhile, shows like The Incredible Dr. Pol and Brain Games pull very good ratings for cable.
• A large digital presence. In 2013, National Geographic reported more than 55 million sessions on its digital properties. And the organization figured out very quickly how shareable its content is on social media: Its Facebook page has 37 million “likes,” about 31 million people follow it on Instagram (where it is the only non-celebrity brand among the top accounts), more than 10 million followers on Twitter, and it’s scraping a million on Pinterest. That’s a huge potential audience for all the company’s offerings.
• E-commerce, book publishing, travel… OK, you get it, it’s a lot of platforms. Here’s the list from the press release:
National Geographic magazines; National Geographic Studios; related digital and social media platforms; books; maps; children’s media; and ancillary activities, including travel, location-based entertainment, archival sales, catalog, licensing, and e-commerce businesses.
Fox paid $725 million for its majority share of National Geographic. That will raise the Society’s endowment to just under a billion dollars. According to the Society’s most recently available IRS filing, it had $55 million in revenue in 2013, with net assets of about $895 million. It says the windfall will give it “greater resources” for its work, “which includes our grant making programs that support scientists and explorers around the world.”