Possibly former actor Paul Giamatti is one of six guest directors of National Geographic Channel’s new series Breakthrough, which NGC is producing in partnership with General Electric and Ron Howard/Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment, Global. It’s one of five new series announced at today’s upfront presentation in New York by Chief Executive Officer Courteney Monroe and President, Original Programming & Production Tim Pastore.

Monroe said NGC had just experienced its “most-watched March ever,” propelled by Killing Jesus. She also announced the return of the iconic docu series Explorer.

In addition to the new series, they announced three special events, including History of The World, For Now, NGC’s first comedy venture, created by the folks behind HBO’s returning series Silicon Valley. Saints & Strangers, co-produced with Sony Pictures Television and Little Engine Productions, will recreate the voyage of the Mayflower and the 101 people who made the trip and struggled through the first brutal months of settlement in New England. Eric Overmyer is writer and EP. And, in collaboration with Studio Hamburg Doclights/NDR Naturfilm, America’s National Parks will showcase the channel’s storied documentarians in a yearlong celebration of the centenary of the U.S. parks system.

NGC describes Breakthrough as an anthology about leading scientists from across the globe and how their cutting-edge innovations and advancements will change life as we know it. Each hourlong episode will be directed by a Hollywood visionary, with Giamatti joined by Angela Bassett, Peter Berg, Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard and Brett Ratner as the first six directors. The first episodes will explore remarkable breakthroughs in brain science, longevity, water, energy, pandemics and cyborg technology.

Image (1) Paul-Giamatti-11-222x300.jpg for post 339111“I’m most amazed that I’m being characterized as a Hollywood visionary,” Giamatti remarked as a lavish lunch was being served at Ma Peche restaurant in Midtown. “I kind of think I’ve had it with acting,” he added, because hanging out with scientists, “is ten thousand times more exciting and interesting.” After showing clips of some of his interaction with inventors and scientists, he cracked, “By the way, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing talking to these guys.”

On a serious note, the clips from the program concerned explorations of how the brain works, how cyber technology is improving in areas such as prosthetics and, as Giamatti said, discovering “whatever it means to be human.”

Here’s a slightly abridged version of the announcement:

On the heels of National Geographic Channel (NGC) achieving its most-watched March in network history, propelled by the premiere of Killing Jesus — the channel’s most-watched show ever — and surpassing 90 million homes with its distribution, NGC Chief Executive Officer Courteney Monroe and President, Original Programming & Production Tim Pastore announced today an adventurous and diverse 2015-2016 Upfront slate with unprecedented partnerships, a bolder and broader mix of new programming and returning franchise series.

Talent who sat among the media during the luncheon included actor/director Paul Giamatti (Breakthrough, a unique partnership between GE and NGC), writer/executive producer Eric Overmyer (Saints & Strangers), Jason Silva (Brain Games), Sue Aikens (Life Below Zero), Justin Hall (Explorer), Bill Schindler (Great Human Race) and Cat Bigney (Great Human Race).

“National Geographic Channel is the only network on television with a 127-year legacy. For us, the power of this brand comes from the innovators and explorers before us who dared to redefine possibility and heroically forged against convention,” said Monroe. “As evident in the diverse and ambitious programming that we continue to develop and produce, we’re taking our viewers on adventures, bringing them to places no one else can deliver and giving them the inspiration and curiosity to dive into the unknown.”

“From the reboot of Explorer to the greenlight of our next scripted project Saints & Strangers and the unprecedented partnership with GE on Breakthrough, this year’s Upfront slate is a testament to our programming commitment to rise above the clutter, to keep true to our core and to deliver on the authenticity that our viewers crave and rely on,” said Pastore. “We’re making programming decisions that will continue to stretch that yellow border, finding innovative ways to entertain our viewers, ultimately inspiring them and generating curiosity, creativity and awe.”

The 2015-16 upfront slate includes:

NEW SERIES
BREAKTHROUGH: A unique partnership between GE and National Geographic Channel (Imagine Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment, Global) Executive produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steve Michaels, Jonathan Koch and Mark Dowley, Breakthrough is an anthology of leading scientists and how their cutting-edge innovations and advancements will change our lives in the immediate future and beyond.

50 STATES OF SURVIVAL (National Geographic Studios, Global)
Is it better to have dozens of tools or just one you can use dozens of ways? A survival savant, an alternative engineer and a gadget guru show us how to make a lot out of a little as they compete against each other in location-based challenges across the U.S. Each task showcases self-reliance and modern ingenuity at their best. Don’t be surprised if you learn a thing or two from this fun-loving trio!

PRIMAL SURVIVAL (Icon Films, Global)
Hazen Audel is completing a series of solo survival missions in some of the world’s most remote places by using only the tribal training passed down to him through the elders he meets along the way. Harnessing the skills these tribal ancestors perfected, Hazen shows what it really means to fight for your life in the most extreme conditions.

THE GREAT HUMAN RACE (National Geographic Studios, Global)
Follow two adventurers, Bill Schindler and Cat Bigney, for 35,000 miles — from the cradle of civilization to the New World — as they complete challenges. While retracing the migratory route of our ancestors, our competitors must overcome some of the same oppressive deserts, frozen tundra and intimidating jungles. Along the way, they face the same challenges early humans did: building weapons out of stone, starting fires, hunting for food, communicating with local tribes and more. It’s a journey of a lifetime — of all of our lifetimes.

THE YARD (Original Productions, Global)
The engineers, mechanics and carpenters at some of our country’s largest shipbuilding operations rush to complete repairs and hustle to get as many boats in the water as possible by deadline. From struggling to fill an order of 40 ferry boats to dealing with the unique challenges of a remote Alaskan location, we show what it takes to get seaworthy ships deconstructed, reconstructed and ready for launch.

RETURNING SERIES
LIFE BELOW ZERO (Adjacent Productions, US Only)
It takes a certain kind of person to live miles north of the Arctic Circle, where frostbite feeds on hesitation and nature’s feral creatures won’t hesitate to feed on you. Follow the jaw-dropping lives of Sue Aikens and these brave Alaskans who prove that you need thick skin to walk on thin ice.

DRUGS, INC. (Wall to Wall Media Ltd., Global)
The multibillion-dollar drug industry is a global phenomenon. Whether it’s legal or lawless, the drug business will always evolve. Get ready for another highly addictive season, where farmers parade their stashes, smugglers reveal their secrets, addicts expose their souls and the law remains in hot pursuit.

WICKED TUNA (Pilgrim Studios, Global)
Brutal conditions, hot tempers and rough waters can only mean our fearless captains are back to rock the boat for a fifth season. Get hooked watching these smart, tough and fearless warriors navigate the deep blue water of Gloucester in hopes of catching their high-priced bluefin bounty.

LIVE FREE OR DIE (National Geographic Studios, Global)
Live Free or Die explores one of America’s most remote subcultures, following six people who have left the modern world behind to live in backwoods and swamps. They hunt their own food, build their own shelters and survive only on what they can produce with their own two hands and sharp intuition.

BRAIN GAMES (National Geographic Studios, Global)
The Emmy-nominated series is back with all-new episodes — and returns to its roots as an hourlong program. Using a series of experiments, illusions and demonstrations, host Jason Silva and guest experts unlock the science behind the mysteries of why we say, see, eat, feel and act as we do. Hailed by critics as “tremendous fun” that “makes science entertaining,” Brain Games turns your mind’s eye inward for a fascinating journey into the 3 1⁄2 pounds of tissue that makes you, well, you.

STARTALK (Curved Light Productions and National Geographic Studios, Global)
Even before the show premieres next week, Nat Geo has announced that Neil deGrasse Tyson will be back this fall to host 10 more episodes, bringing together celebrities, scientists and comedians to explore a variety of cosmic topics and colliding pop culture with science in a way that late-night television has never seen before. Weekly topics range from popular science fiction, space travel, extraterrestrial life and the Big Bang to the future of Earth and the environment.

EXPLORER (National Geographic Studios, Global)
The longest-running documentary series in cable television, honored with nearly 60 Emmys, returns this year with 12 new episodes investigating stories of science, nature and culture. In this new iteration, fans gain deeper access and insight to the most provocative topics covered in National Geographic Magazine, including the evolution of the eye, the ongoing conflict inside the Congo’s Virunga National Park and a new look at Mary the mother of Jesus — all opening a window on hidden parts of the world.

EVENTS
SAINTS & STRANGERS (Sony Pictures Television with Little Engine Productions, US Only)
Saints & Strangers is a story that goes beyond the familiar historical version of the founding of America, revealing the trials and tribulations of the first American settlers: 101 men, women and children who sailed on a chartered a ship called the Mayflower for a place no one had ever seen. Half of these “pilgrims” were religious separatists who had abandoned their prior lives for religious freedom and an opportunity to create a new social order built on their values. The other half, “adventurers,” were mostly single males seeking financial opportunity and a rapid acquisition of wealth in a new land, or trying to escape their old identities or criminal pasts. And intertwined with their complex inner struggles is the relationship with the Native Americans, and the conflicting allegiances among these groups, culminating in trials of assimilation, faith and compromise that to this day define our country.

AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS (Studio Hamburg Doclights/ NDR Naturfilm, Global)
In a spectacular yearlong event, National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD, in partnership with the National Parks System, celebrate the 100th birthday of America’s best idea. This premium blue-chip event premieres two new hours of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world per quarter. It features stories of our nation’s most beloved animal characters along with some new faces you may have never seen. From sea to shining sea, this is where you will experience North America’s natural wonders and iconic wildlife as never before.

HISTORY OF THE WORLD … FOR NOW (Altschuler & Krinsky Works and National Geographic Studios, Global)
From the writers of HBO’s Silicon Valley, History of the World … For Now takes viewers on an irreverent romp through time, from the Big Bang to The Notorious B.I.G. Animation, stop-motion, original sketches and audaciously hilarious storytelling from the best comedians in Hollywood turn dull history on its head in this four-hour gut-busting event.