Hooked on Television


There's a big plaque for Animals of the NFL on the windowsill of National Geographic Channel president Laureen Ong's Washington office.

It's not something Ong picked up when she ran WTTG-TV, Fox's affiliate in Washington, which airs Washington Redskins games. Ong took the plaque from the set of a NGC show that studies many of the animals that represent mascots in the National Football League.

The program, which premiered last Friday (Jan. 24), epitomizes some key aspects of Ong's strategy in building NGC, which debuted in January 2001. The network hopes to draw mainstream viewers and football fans to the program, as well as animal lovers — some of the network's core viewers.

Animals of the NFL
also afforded NGC a lot of marketing potential, Ong noted. Fox Entertainment Group owns the majority of NGC, and the Fox broadcast network hyped the program during its widely viewed NFL Playoffs coverage. James Brown, the host of Fox NFL Sunday, is also the host of Animals.

Little to big leagues

Ong spent much of her career in sports. She began gauging talent on a Little League team in her hometown of New Milford, N.J. Her father was president of the league, her brother played on a team and she was a scorekeeper.

Originally, Ong planned to teach. After graduating from New Jersey's Montclair State College with two majors, one in speech and theater and another in art and math, she lined up a job teaching high school in Manhattan.

Hoping to save some money, Ong got a job as a receptionist at TVS Television Network, a sports programmer. She had only planned to spend the summer, but became hooked on TV.

"I recognized the opportunity was unbelievable and that I wanted to stay there because I was learning so much, and that I could always go back to teach later on," Ong said.

Her challenge, though, was convincing her boss at TVS to allow her to apply for a position as traffic coordinator.

"I could overhear them saying, 'Wendy's leaving, why don't we just put Laureen in her job?'" Ong recalled. "And the principal of the company said, 'Oh my God, no. She's the best receptionist we've ever had — everybody loves her, she gets the names right, she's upbeat — this would be terrible.' "

Ong got the job after promising that she would train her replacement to handle the receptionist post as well as she had.

"That was the very first step of what I have had to do throughout my entire career, which was to convince people to give me an opportunity and to give me a chance to do something that I had never done before," Ong said.

Always the underdog

As an Asian-American woman, she has often stood out from the pack.

When selling shows like St. Elsewhere
and Remington Steele
for program-sales syndicator MTM Distribution, one local station general manager asked her to pose for a picture because he had "never had a sales call from either a woman or an Asian," and he wanted to document the event.

And although NGC trails the 17-year-old Discovery Channel, she's also familiar with playing catch-up in business.

When Ong was program director of CBS Sports Spectacular, the venerable ABC's Wide World of Sports
dominated that field. And when she was vice president of broadcasting at the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Cubs were (and still are) the darlings of baseball fans in the Windy City.

"But that's where your opportunities are, because those are the places that they need someone to get them to the next place and to crush the Goliath that's out there and to do the job, because otherwise they don't need you," Ong said.

Early in her career, Ong set a goal of becoming a station general manager. After working as local sales manager at KRON-TV in San Francisco, Ong's path steered through cable.

In the early 1980s, she was assistant general manager at SportsVision in Chicago (now Fox Sports Chicago), one of the first regional sports networks to put baseball on subscription TV. She later moved to Rainbow Programming's PRISM channel in Philadelphia.

After pitching Fox Television Stations president Mitchell Stern for a station GM job for several years, Ong was hired at Fox's KSAZ-TV as vice president and GM in 1997. A year later, she took the helm at Washington's WTTG, where she became the first — and possibly the only — Asian-American woman to run a network affiliate in a top-10 market.

During a retransmission-consent battle with Cox Communications Inc. in 2000, Ong met former Fox Cable Networks CEO Jeff Shell, who later recommended her for NGC's GM.

Bold predictions

NGC has grown to 41 million subscribers in two years, a pace that has outstripped its marketing capacity. "We have not been able to get the word out fast enough that we're there," Ong noted.

The network is now stepping up its efforts in New York City, where Time Warner Cable recently added NGC to its expanded-basic package — the network's biggest launch to date.

NGC averaged a 0.2 rating in 2002, the first year it was measured by Nielsen Media Research. Rival Discovery dwarfed NGC with a 1.2 household average in primetime, but Ong is confident the gap will be closed quickly.

"My five-year plan is to get this channel fully distributed, and that we will rank as one of the top five networks ever in cable by consumers. And if we are able to achieve that I will feel that we've really done a fantastic job."