Upfront Watch: Nat Geo Sets Sail with Mayflower Miniseries

'Saints & Strangers' Marks Network's Biggest Bet On Scripted Programming

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Nat Geo's 'Killing Jesus.'
Nat Geo's 'Killing Jesus.'

Encouraged by the performance of its original biopic, "Killing Jesus," National Geographic Channel is making another foray into scripted programming.

During its Wednesday afternoon upfront presentation in New York, Nat Geo said it has given the green light to the four-hour miniseries "Saints & Strangers," which will tell the story of the 130 zealots, pilgrims, profiteers, criminals and crewmen who landed in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620.

A Sony Pictures Television production, "Saints & Strangers" will debut in the fall. The script upon which the miniseries is based was written by "Homeland" producer Chip Johannessen.

The "Saints & Strangers" pickup comes just weeks after the premiere of "Killing Jesus." Based on the Bill O'Reilly book—Nat Geo is jointly owned by Fox News Channel parent company 21st Century Fox and the National Geographic Society—"Killing Jesus" bowed March 29 to 3.67 million viewers and a 0.8 rating among adults 25-54. The older-skewing film averaged a 2.6 rating among men 50 years old and up, making it the third most-watched cable program on the night in that age bracket, trailing only Fox Sports 1's Nascar Sprint Cup coverage (3.8) and AMC's "The Walking Dead" (3.4).

Nat Geo originally planned to introduce a scripted series about Navy SEALs back in 2014, but that project fell apart last February.

Among the most noteworthy unscripted projects Nat Geo is prepping for the fall is "Breakthrough," a science-drenched anthology series from Imagine Entertainment's Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Funded by General Electric, each one-hour installment of "Breakthrough" will examine a different watershed event in areas such as neuroscience, disease vectors, robotics and longevity. Directors on the project include Angela Bassett, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner and Paul Giamatti.

Nat Geo also plans to produce 12 new episodes of "Explorer," cable's longest-running documentary series.

"From the reboot of 'Explorer' to…the unprecedented partnership with GE on 'Breakthrough,' this year's upfront slate is a testament to our programming commitment to rise above the clutter, to keep true to our core and to deliver on the authenticity that our viewers crave and rely on," said Tim Pastore, Nat Geo's president of original programming & production.

The Fox side of the joint venture oversees all ad sales business for Nat Geo. "More than ever before, Nat Geo is delivering authentic, branded entertainment in big ways," said Toby Byrne, president, advertising sales, Fox Networks Group. "This programming slate offers our clients an array of unique promotional opportunities, and we look forward to working on customized plans to best take advantage of this brand."

Returning series include "Life Below Zero, "Drugs, Inc." and "Wicked Tuna."

Nat Geo in the first quarter of 2015 marked a distribution milestone, surpassing 90 million subscriber households. The network in the first quarter of this year averaged 507,000 prime-time viewers, essentially flat when compared to the year-ago period (500,000).

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