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Exclusive: Nat Geo Explorer’s EP Gretchen Eisele on why there’s ‘nothing like it on TV’

Gretchen Eisele in Vilafranca del Penedés where the human towers competed August 30, 2918 in the Festa Major of Vilafranca del Penedès
Gretchen Eisele in Vilafranca del Penedés where the human towers competed August 30, 2018, in the Festa Major of Vilafranca del Penedès. Pic credit: Monsters and Critics

In 2010, National Geographic celebrated the 25th anniversary of Explorer, the longest-running documentary series in cable television history.

Monsters and Critics was invited back in April of 2010 to go to DC for the festive event with National Geographic Channel’s executive VP of content Steve Burns and Michael Rosenfeld, president of National Geographic Television, as the network prepared a giant Globe cake with cake cutting honors. Lisa Ling. who narrated the documentary of the history of the series, was also there.

Cut to 2018, as Monsters and Critics joined Explorer in Villafranca, Spain where we met executive producer Gretchen Eisele and their new host, Phil Keoghan.

This season, National Geographic is expanding Explorer into a multi-platform franchise.  The numbers for this series are impressive: Explorer will premiere 13 episodes with 53 unique stories this season, as the current season was filmed in 26 countries and 27 states. Explorer will premiere on National Geographic in 172 countries and in 43 languages.

Venerable new host Phil Keoghan has been added to their accomplished roster of journalists who immerse themselves and dig up compelling stories all over the world. Jeff Hasler, Brian Lovett, and Gretchen Eisele are the series’ current executive producers.

Phil Keoghan holds up a human tower
Phil Keoghan is circled, as he helps hold up one of the human towers during a practice session. Pic credit: Monsters and Critics

Eisele was with us in Spain and oversaw the entire soon to be aired Castellers segment showing the Festa Major of Vilafranca del Penedès that honors patron Saint Fèlix.

Keoghan immersed himself in this Catalonian tradition of building Castells. He also dined in one of the Castellers’ homes and learned intimate insider knowledge on why these Catalans proudly keep this death-defying tower building tradition going with each generation.

We spoke to Gretchen about her exciting career and love for the Explorer franchise.

Monsters and Critics: When did you start with National Geographic in your career?

Gretchen Eisele: Just exactly a year ago.

M&C: Where did you come from?

Gretchen Eisele: Previous to National Geographic, I had worked for a company called Pulse Films on a special for History Channel and prior to that, I was at NBC. For a total of 18 years actually but the last 10 was at Peacock Productions. I was an Executive Producer there for 10 years.

M&C: Did you go to film school? How did you become a producer? What made you want to become a producer versus a director or in the industry in a different capacity?

Gretchen Eisele: So, my, “Ah ha” moment came when I was a senior in college and I couldn’t decide what to do. I had been a literature major and I knew I loved photography and I wanted to get into media but I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, other than I loved telling stories.

I was watching 60 Minutes and I decided that’s what I want to do. I want to make stories like on 60 Minutes; and then from there, I got an internship with Bill Moyers in New York and that was the beginning.

M&C: How do you see Explorer evolving in its tone or point of view with Phil Keoghan, as your star correspondent?

Gretchen Eisele: I think what Phil will bring … along with the fans that he just has from Amazing Race, is a new sense of positive, immersive stories about the world.

Phil Keoghan has a lust for life, stories and learning about cultural phenomena like the Castell episode reveals. Pic credit: Phil Keoghan
Phil Keoghan has a lust for life, stories and learning about cultural phenomena like the Castell episode reveals. Pic credit: Phil Keoghan

I think the tone this season will be a little bit lighter. We did in past seasons, Explorer did a lot of investigative stories and some of them were on the darker side, and we haven’t completely backed away from that.

We’re still doing a lot of really interesting investigative work but we’re also trying to shine a light on stories about people and ideas and innovations that are making the world a better, brighter place.

M&C: Tell me how Explorer is structured this season. There are 13 episodes?

Gretchen Eisele: There are 13 episodes. We’ll hit the air on November 12th. We’ll be on for a couple of weeks, there’ll be a hiatus for two weeks I believe at Christmas time and then we’ll be back on.

M&C: Within each episode, how many segments normally are there?

Gretchen Eisele: So, each episode has four segments generally. One of them covers two acts. It’s a five-act structure.

One act of each episode is Phil’s journey. So, he takes us to an exotic place in every episode and then we balance out the rest of the episode with a mix of stories from our different correspondents about different topics and we try and have one international story.

We try and have one story that may be a little bit more serious in its nature and then a story that may be a little bit lighter and brighter, but there’s no prescription for any of them.

We just really pick our best stories from the whole season and try and give people a mix and it’s one of the things that’s really unique and special about the series is that every time you tune in, you’re going to get something new and different.

M&C: Most vexing issue or problem as an Executive Producer for this series is…?

Gretchen Eisele: I would say the hardest thing with Explorer is the volume. We have produced over 50 stories in the last year. That’s a lot of stories with a lot of moving parts, a lot of different correspondents, they’re based all over the world.

We have producers that we’re trying to keep in the field on the stories but there are so many things that need to line up with every single story, in terms of the logistics and it’s like a Rubik’s Cube at any moment making all the pieces fit.

And keeping everything running efficiently.

M&C: Tell me a little bit about the other correspondents that work with Phil.

Gretchen Eisele:  Mariana van Zeller is somebody that’s returned from past seasons. She’s a really intrepid reporter. She’s been all over the world. She’s done some of our most interesting and dangerous stories this year.

Eisele relies on the expertise of Mariana van Zeller in the field. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel
Eisele relies on the expertise of Mariana van Zeller in the field. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel

She went to Gaza and she went into the tunnels in between the Gaza Strip and Israel and she is somebody that you kind of can’t not watch because she’s really magnetic on screen.

Eisele also counts on Albert Lin to get the story. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel
Eisele also counts on Albert Lin to get the story. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel

Albert Lin is one of our new correspondents this year. He’s a National Geographic Explorer and he’s a really interesting guy who’s just naturally curious about the world and he’s brought a new personality to the table that I think people are really going to respond to.

Tim Samuels is also a returning correspondent. He’s a Brit with a really wry sense of humor and so, he brings his own personality to a lot of the stories.

Eisele appreciates the "sly" humor of Tim Samuels. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel
Eisele appreciates the “sly” humor of Tim Samuels. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel
Eiesele had JJ direct and shoot the Catalan segment with Phil. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel
Eisele had JJ direct and shoot the Catalan segment with Phil. Pic credit: Nat Geo Channel

J.J. Kelley is new this season. He’s a long time producer for many years at National Geographic and he embodies the brand.

M&C: Who’s a great unsung hero behind the scenes? That is a star in your eyes, to make this actually happen? Who is your right arm in getting these stories told?

Gretchen Eisele: Oh, gosh. It’s so hard to answer that because it really does take a village. In fact, it takes an army with this show. So, I really wouldn’t want to single out any one department or any one person.

There is so much that goes on with production management in terms of the logistics, with having all of our teams all over the world and keeping them safe and keeping their schedules running and their hotels and their flights. I mean, it’s an incredible department that just does all of that.

Our Post Production Team is amazing and none of the stories amount to anything unless you have people who can put them together well and make them into well crafted, well-edited stories that people will respond to and they’ve done a terrific job with that.

And then all the field producers, all the field teams. They’re the ones who are leaving home to go out in the world and bring the stories back and having very, very long days in the field; and then, of course, our cinematographers are just the top of the game and they just bring it every time when they go out.

But actually, one of the unsung heroes would be the Development Team because there’s nothing without a story idea and it takes a lot to actually develop the stories. To find stories that are stories that are unique and that you can get unique access to and then book the characters and shape the story.

Without the development, we don’t have anything at all and it’s a very tall order to come up with that many stories because for every one that we’re actually able to do, there is probably five that fall through before we get out the door.

M&C: How would you describe Explorer as a show, a series, a concept and how it differentiates from the rest of the stuff that’s out there?

Gretchen Eisele: I would say Explorer … the easiest thing for people to understand is that its sort of a 60 minutes in the natural history, natural world science space. Every one of our episodes are about the way people interact with the natural world in one way or another and we take places … we take people to places and tell stories that nobody else is really telling.

We do a lot more foreign stories than most US outlets do and we dig a little deeper than the news ever gets to do because our stories are longer. We have a longer amount of time to develop them and tell them, and so really there isn’t anything like it on television.

Explorer airs Mondays at 10/9 c on National Geographic Channel.


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