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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
TV News

‘Brain Games’ leads a whole new genre at Nat Geo Channel


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NEW YORK – Given that David Rees has written a book on how to sharpen a pencil, he seems the perfect choice to host a new National Geographic Channel series that elevates mundane activities into the subject of deep investigation.

So, for those inclined, Rees’ “Going Deep” over the next two months will tell more than you ever thought you could know about digging a hole, tying a shoe, making ice cubes, shaking hands or throwing a paper airplane.

The series debuts Monday (10 p.m. EDT) following a new episode of “Brain Games.” It’s part of what has become a new programming genre at National Geographic that explains how the world works. Think of it as Geek TV, although the network works very hard to make shows that will appeal to the channel surfer.

“Brain Games” started it all. Host Jason Silva guides viewers through experiments designed to show how the brain perceives things like motion, space or time. The new season gets more abstract; tests measure compassion, anger, addiction and intuition.

A three-hour “Brain Games” special in 2011 did so well the network quickly ordered a series, which became National Geographic’s most popular program, said Courteney Monroe, the network’s chief executive.

“It remains unique on the television landscape,” she said. “That was what kind of ignited it for us. As we watched the performance continue to grow, we said, ‘What else can we get in this space?”’

Other shows were launched to appeal to the same taste. In “None of the Above,” host Tim Shaw conducts experiments and asks people to predict the outcome. “The Numbers Game” uses statistics, role play and experiments to answer questions like “are you a risk taker?” or “can you be a hero?”

One series soon to come, “Mind Over Masses,” was inspired by YouTube clips. It explores ways to make people change behavior, like painting stairs to look like a piano so people use them more than an elevator. The upcoming “You Can’t Lick Your Elbow” examines the human body. “Mapology,” due next year, uses data analysis to uncover some of the world’s unexpected realities.

The network has also given the go-ahead to a miniseries about inventors, “American Genius,” produced by the same company that made “The Men Who Built America.”

It’s enough to make the brain hurt.

Monroe needs to balance the interest in viewers unleashed by “Brain Games” with oversaturating the market, keeping in mind that competing networks will surely develop copycats. “We’re always worried about that,” she said.

Within the genre, “Going Deep” is a little risky, Monroe said. Rees is a former political cartoonist and a comedian who – honest! – maintains a side business sharpening pencils for money. He and the show have an edgy New York wit.

“He’s quirky,” Monroe said. “The show is quirky. The sensibility is quirky. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I love that we’re trying it.”

As the title suggests, “Going Deep” uses each show’s question to take intriguing side trips. An episode on how to strike a match delves into the science of fire, which Rees finds not as haphazard as he thought. He finds a scientist with striking new designs for real airplanes to talk to on his show about paper airplanes, and is shown glacial ice hundreds of thousands of years old in his ice cube program. Producers flew in an expert on knots from Australia for the shoelace episode.

“I think that was our entire travel budget,” he said.

Rees believes his show has found the right home in the geeky corner of National Geographic Channel.

“We had three networks saying, ‘We’re out there looking for a new ‘Duck Dynasty,”’ he said. “I said, ‘This is not your next ‘Duck Dynasty.”’

David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter(at)bauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.

Online:

http://www.natgeotv.com/

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