D.C.'s homeless are forming a focus group for the National Geographic Channel.
In his inaugural address to the National Geographic Society in 1888, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the institution's first president, said, "[T]he membership of our Society will not be confined to professional geographers, but will include that large number who, like myself, desire to...know more of the world upon which we live."
Even under the spell of Victorian-era noblesse oblige, Hubbard probably never envisioned just how far beyond the ranks of professional geographers his audience would spread. Last year, the National Geographic Channel opened shop at the society's 17th Street NW headquarters, beaming its programming to seven television screens easily accessible from the street. And so the society has attracted a viewing demographic rarely pursued by cable programmers: the homeless.
"All I can say is, God bless them if they want to watch our channel," says John Terhar, the channel's chief engineer. "I love watching our channel. I can easily understand why they'd want to."
Designed by the same outfit that created NBC's Today show set, the National Geographic Channel's state-of-the-art digital television studio is situated on the ground floor of the National Geographic building and visible to passersby through massive floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto the building's spacious portico.
This slice of real estate has long been a desirable spot for homeless people seeking shelter from the rain, but it now offers the added feature of sharply edited educational programming. The shows often draw small crowds, even in the freezing cold.
"I have seen some homeless people out there, but I think it's really a D.C. tourist thing, like the Today show in New York," says Johnna Miller, a spokesperson for the channel. "We have a daily news show, sometimes live but not always, covering environmental, political, and cultural news from around the world that you never get. We even have our own Katie [Couric] and Matt [Lauer]; we have Laura [Greene] and Tom [Foreman]."
Seventeenth Street has hardly turned into Rockefeller Center, though. A smattering of tourists do mill about, mostly on the weekends. Moms and dads pushing strollers and herding toddlers and teens enjoy the momentary reprieve that a row of high-definition televisions accompanied by a state-of-the-art sound system playing MTV-style programming affords on the trek between the Cathedral of St. Matthew and the White House. It's even educational.
But when they climb the steps, they often find themselves steering the kids away from men huddled under coarse blankets asking for a few pennies or muttering ominous, incoherent slurs at the screens.
Free cable has made folks like "Ward," a local homeless man who appears to be in his late 40s, regulars on the weekend. On Sundays, Ward will sit on the cold marble for hours to catch repeats of Living Wild, the channel's nature and natural history program.
"I like Living Wild because it shows all them animals like the gorillas in their own countries," says Ward. "I don't like how they take them and capture them and put them in cages to bring them to zoos in America. In shows like Living Wild, they are out in their own countries."
The shows are often broken up with classroom-style discussion questions, and, after a program on the U.S. Military Academy, Ward tackles a question about the purpose of military ceremonies.
"They got to do that to show they're a team and that they got power," he says.
As he goes on, he becomes more and more animated, and his arguments become cyclical and loud. A security guard notices that Ward is making a family of tourists that has paused to watch the screens uncomfortable and walks by menacingly. Ward turns his attention back to the screen.
"Nobody has ever complained about anything," says Terhar. "Not about the homeless, not about the sound level. Nothing."
Management is still hopeful that the Today-style news program will attract large crowds holding up signs and making stupid faces into the windows. Such a cult following, however, would require a spike in local awareness. Currently, the National Geographic Channel appears in more than 20 million homes nationwide but is missing from the menu of the average D.C. cable customer--a market that National Geographic execs hope to reach by year's end. In the meantime, the channel will be available to only two D.C. groups: those with a satellite dish and those willing to brave the elements outside National Geographic headquarters for hours on end.
"I just wish [the homeless] had ratings books," says Terhar. "If they had ratings books, man, they'd be golden." CP