John Ford

National Geographic Channel

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John ford has not always had a stellar career. The exec VP-programming at National Geographic was once an actor. "It was the Velveeta end of the business, not the brie," he says, including the kind of dinner theater "where you're in a show, and people call up and say, 'What's on the menu?' not 'What's the show?' "

But the acting profession's loss was the documentary world's gain. Mr. Ford, 53, had a long stint at Discovery Communications, where he was instrumental in launching three networks, before joining National Geographic in 2003. He's presiding over the content of not only the linear channel, but on-demand and broadband services as well. And there's another platform expansion on the way.

But clearly, Mr. Ford has had a very serious effect on the network. "We're coming off of two-and-a-half years of the most successful ratings ... And we couldn't have done that without John giving us the vision and setting the channel in the right direction [program wise]," says Laureen Ong, president of National Geographic Channel.

When Mr. Ford arrived at Nat Geo, his mandate was to drop its dependence on National Geographic footage in favor of original, more contemporary programming. He was up to the task. "A lot of what we do is take elements you see in feature films and apply them to the content of nonfiction television," Mr. Ford says.

His team also presents major programs such as the recurring "In the Womb," specials, which use imaging techniques to show humans and animals in the embryonic stage.

Clearly, Mr. Ford's work is key to Nat Geo's push to drive its subscriber base past 58 million-a far cry from the 90.6 million that Discovery Channel enjoys. "The biggest challenge is to make noise in a very crowded forest," he says.

Program changes pay off:
* Ratings rose 40% last year in prime time.
* Total revenue in the fourth quarter of 2005 nearly doubled the amount for the same period a year earlier.
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