David Lyle has been the CEO of National Geographic Channels for less than a year, and he has been unabashedly shaking off the “dusty and academic” cobwebs associated with the brand. Most recently that involves a headlong plunge into reality programming with “American Gypsies,” a series that takes you inside Romany culture with the Johns family, whose encounters generally dissolve into shouting matches when they’re not throwing punches. Lyle was grilled on the newfangled National Geographic by Sharon Waxman. The show debuts on Tuesday night.
“American Gypsies” is definitely different programming from the traditional perception of National Geographic.
Yes, they register on the Richter scale when they speak. We’re using different story-telling methods to look inside topics that by themselves may not be so different from the sort of topics that National Geographic has covered in the past. If you look at the magazine or tv channel we’d look at tribes in different parts of the world.
With the Hutterites, Amish, Doomsday and now Gypsies, we’re looking inside the United States at groups that are outliers, and no doubt that the Johns family is loud and big in every sense of the word. We use outrageous characters as a way inside a world you wouldn’t see otherwise.
Would you argue that a show like "American Gypsies" adds to our cultural knowledge in way different than, say, "Jersey Shore"?
First and foremost I’d stand up and say I hope it’s entertaining to watch. That’s what it needs to be first, and I’m unapologetic about that. As well it’s fascinating, it gives you a look at a tradition and culture that was previously closed
Isn’t the mission of Nat Geo to educate rather than entertain?
I believe that you can do both. However, you’ve got to lead with entertainment.
So you’re trying to shed the fustiness associated with the brand?
I would happily say we are shedding the image that Nat Geo is dusty and academic. We still pride ourselves on having a really rigorous fact-checking and standards and practices department that makes sure the facts are correct. I’m there to make sure the factual entertainment is entertaining.
"Gypsies" seems like a classic reality show, using conflict to heighten the drama, yes?
Where we’re lucky with the Johns famliy is that they have loud drama just to get coffee in the morning should they ever get up that early. It is important to have large characters that will hook you. Nicky’s dilemma is every modern father’s dilemma. He has kids, he has a lot of pressure to make these kids traditional, and yet the kids want a new sense of being Romany in America. It’s a fresh insight.
How many episodes are in the series?
Eight in the final analysis. At one stage it was 10. Wait – no, it’s nine.
They don’t always turn up when they say they’re going to turn up. I’ve been in the pacific islands where time is a very elastic concept. But you’d think in Manhattan you’d know what time it is. They all have lovely expensive watches. But the idea of turning up within an hour of allotted time — they’d roll their eyes.
They pick themselves up and go to Florida without letting you know. So we’re hopping on planes trying to track them down in Florida. They have their own traditions.
We were incredibly lucky to get inside their world. Their world is the only thing they care about, the rest is Gaje (outsider). Wherever they turn up they’re inclined to want to party. Tonight is our launch, so I suspect tomorrow I’ll be coming back on my hands and knees. These guys dance, sing, fight, they drink –they seem to talk to other peoples’ wives. It’s full-on.
How did you get them to let you in?
It was quite bizarre — Ralph Macchio (one of the show's producers) met these guys at a wedding. They were starstruck with him. He said, you guys are incredible. Their ego is not tiny, they thought they were incredible. He convinced them to open their homes to the cameras.
The patriarchs are incredibly strident — the grandmother at the wedding grabbing the 14 year-old-granddaughter — that is them. In the midst of it, the dad has a heart attack. And all the brothers meet at the hospital, and they’re very distrustful of doctors and they only want Romany doctors. Their level of education is high school if you’re lucky. So the idea of a Romany doctor — it’s like getting a violin-playing Navy seal.
The doctor says, "Look he’s had another heart attack, I need to do an operation." Nicky’s ready to sign (a release), and the other brother just slugs him right in front of the camera. I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’ It’s the way they live their lives.
Where else do you want to go with the brand?
A year ago we had a lot of one-off documentaries. We’re still keeping those. But we’re looking for series that will unabashedly give viewers something to come back to week after week, and different storytelling methods.
We’ve got competition-style thing; outdoor pursuits in competition. Tom Beers’ “Are You Tougher than a Boy Scout?” The conceit of that is boy scouts, who are nerdy, are put up against weekend warriors and see who comes out on top.
What’s your background?
I was a geologist and geophysicist, which I dropped a million years ago. Now I’ve come full circle. I worked on a drill rig in northern Australia as a geologist. Mining went bad, then I got into television for the last 30 years. I was the president of entertainment at Fremantle where I introduced "American Idol." Then I was at Fox, and I came to Nat Geo a year ago.
Why are you still in DC?
You could ask that question. But it harkens back to 125 years of National Geographic tradition.
That you’re in the process of shredding?
In terms of television, I’m clearly wanting to add new entertainment energy to the mix.