Tuned In: National Geographic's "Explorer" celebrates 25th anniversary

A look back at notable stories in show's history

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Five networks, multiple hosts/correspondents and 25 years later, National Geographic's "Explorer" continues to take viewers to far-flung locales in pursuit of stories and topics as varied as political policy disputes, the ocean's depths and the dark heart of jungles.

To mark the occasion, National Geographic Channel debuts "Explorer: 25 Years" (9 p.m. Monday), a look back at some of the most notable stories in the show's history, some of which have been photographed by Pittsburgh-based freelance camera operator Mark Knobil.

His most recent "Explorer" film, "Solitary Confinement," debuted earlier this month and re-airs at 4 p.m. Tuesday on NGeo.

"Each one is an incredible adventure," said Mr. Knobil, who lives in Polish Hill. "The people who are running 'Explorer' really believe in documentary filmmaking and believe in the importance of showing the world to the world. There's not much of that on television."

In an Internet age and an era when air travel to the far corners of the planet is easier than it was when "Explorer" began, the show's contributors believe the program still has a place.

"I actually feel like I've been able to do better journalism for the National Geographic Channel than I probably would have been able to do for many of the news networks because these days, as we all know, the highest-rated shows on the news networks consist of people who are sort of talking at each other," said Lisa Ling, a current "Explorer" correspondent and host of the 25th anniversary special. "There are so many things happening in the world that, until you go and encounter or experience them, you really don't know."

For Mr. Knobil, his travels with "Explorer" began prior to its April 1985 launch on Nickelodeon (a year later, "Explorer" moved to TBS before jumping to CNBC, then MSNBC, then NGeo). He was working on National Geographic documentaries for PBS at WQED when the notion of expanding the National Geographic franchise to cable first came up. He worked as an assistant cameraman on the an early "Explorer" episode, "Herculaneum: Voices from the Past." That episode was produced by another Pittsburgher, Joe Seamans, who tapped local actor Bingo O'Malley to be the narrator.

"The idea seemed to be to do something that was 80 percent as good as the PBS National Geographic shows on 20 percent of the budget," said Mr. Seamans of Point Breeze, who was on staff at WQED at the time and now works as an independent producer. "WQED was somewhat protective of these specials but this was out there and trying to do something a little bit different. I really wanted to produce something and this came in under the radar. Everyone thought cable was a joke."

"Herculaneum" first aired on Nickelodeon in 1985 and was later expanded and re-titled "In the Shadow of Vesuvius," airing on PBS in 1987.

"Yes, they were less expensive than 'National Geographic Specials,'" said Steve Burns, executive vice president of content for NGeo. "Nevertheless, in terms of quality, they were right up there with the specials. If you look at today's 'Explorer,' it's just gorgeous. I think they've managed over the 25 years to maintain the quality expected of the National Geographic brand."

Mr. Knobil has filmed about seven of the "Explorer" episodes -- each shoot lasts about 25 days -- that are usually made by independent production companies with a National Geographic staffer serving as an associate producer.

For "Solitary Confinement," Mr. Knobil spent time in a Colorado prison, "a depressing environment," he said, with visual challenges.

"You think of a prison as a dark place, walls dripping with slime and chains on the walls, and actually the problem was that these are bright, fluorescent-lit spaces painted cheery colors, so it's kind of flying in the face of reality," he said. "The reality is, this was a serious prison. Finding ways to communicate that reality beneath the paint was a challenge."

"Explorer" executive producer Jonathan Halperin called Mr. Knobil "a human tripod," who is able to maneuver a hand-held camera so deftly that it doesn't look hand held.

"He listens," Mr. Halperin said of Mr. Knobil's strengths as a videographer. "It's deep listening to be able to film something happening in real time and listen to what's happening and to take a camera and put it in that place and capture that thing that will never happen again."

Mr. Knobil said he thinks of his camera as a musical instrument. He's not preoccupied with the buttons or technical aspects of filming people, his specialty, but being absorbed in the situation and his subject.

"I have an infinite sympathy for people who find themselves in front of the camera because it's a miserable place to be," he said. "I think that sympathy comes through with my shooting and my presence when I'm in that situation.

"The adventures happen and they're all so present and so all-consuming and when it's over it's like it was a dream," Mr. Knobil said. "I'm back in Polish Hill hanging out at Gooski's. Was I really in Cameroon? That couldn't have been."


TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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