Laureen Ong Riding an 'Immense’ Star

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Forget her spectacular office overlooking the harbor of the most densely populated island on the planet, the joys of exploring Asia’s art and cuisine or constant journeys into intriguing cultures.

It’s the scope of the job that lured Laureen Ong, National Geographic Channel’s first president, to her new post as chief operating officer at Rupert Murdoch’s Asia-wide satellite TV service, Star.

The News Corp. programmer operates more than 60 networks in 53 countries and 10 languages.

'IMMENSE’ TASK

Ong, in the No. 2 role at Star since May, oversees a staff of 3,000 delivering television shows to more than 300 million homes daily. Her duties? “Immense.”

Star, after all, is trying to serve a diverse mix of cultures, economies and challenging regulatory environments — including those of the two most populous and rapidly developing markets in the world, India and China.

At this point, Star’s 60-plus channels offer a United Nations menu of in-language services, including Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Bahasa Indonesia, Korean and Thai.

Star distributes original TV networks, such as Channel [V], Star World and Star Sports, and Fox-owned channels including FX, Fox News and Asia-only FoxCrime, plus Ong’s alma mater National Geographic Channel, NGC HD, Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Adventure.

Non-News Corp.-owned brands on its channel lineup include ESPN and Baby TV.

“What is exciting and challenging about Asia is that it is not one homogenous market,” Ong said. “Fundamentally, programmers around the world are looking for the same thing — relevance. And that means an in-depth understanding of what viewers want, what works from market to market.”

DELIVERING 'RELEVANCE’

Defining and delivering “relevance” was a skill she honed at Nat Geo, a joint venture between Fox Cable and the National Geographic Society.

As its first president, Ong led the network over her six years into 66 million U.S. homes, spurred by strong ratings performers such as Dog Whisperer and forays into high-definition, video on demand and broadband.

She admits it was tough handing the Nat Geo reins to current CEO David Haslingden and general manager Steve Schiffman, and still keeps a watchful eye on her “baby.”

“Launching a big iconic channel brand like National Geographic in a very competitive market had tremendous challenges,” she said. Despite achieving “remarkable results quickly,” as she puts it, “it was still only one channel.”

Ong’s frenetic tenure at Nat Geo seems positively bucolic compared to her life today, where she and her management consultant husband Richard Skwarek live in the heart of a city she calls “New York on steroids.” Not that they’ve have much time to explore Hong Kong or its outlying islands and pastoral new territories on their bikes, as they’ve been itching to do.

Ong has been busy getting steeped in Star’s businesses since last May, meeting clients, business partners and employees at the company’s regional offices in India, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Dubai, the U.K. and back home in the U.S., where Star recently opened an office in Los Angeles.

Skwarek has been flying back and forth to attend to his work in the U.S., where the couple maintains a home in Phoenix.

She’s also been busy staffing her executive ranks. Last fall, the president of Star’s distribution platforms, David Butorac, resigned and senior vice president of programming Ross Crowley left. Star brought in Todd Lituchy as entertainment president, and hired David Searl (senior vice president of production) and Donovan Castillo-Mohlman (vice president of program strategy and acquisitions).

Ong said she and Star CEO Paul Aiello are looking for top managers to help them expand the company’s global business interests, which include filmed entertainment, television production, cable systems, wireless and digital services in addition to Star’s massive satellite TV operation.

“Coming to Asia has been broadening for me both personally and professionally,” Ong said. “The opportunities for talented people are endless. Much of that is due to the fact that Asia is a booming and growing media market.”

Her pitch to prospective hires pondering a globe-hopping career move? “Just think about it, the Asian market includes nearly 4 billion people accounting for nearly 60% of the world’s population.”

“The media landscape is ripe for television executives that want to leverage their experience and broaden their skill sets,” she said. “For TV execs, what can be more exciting than working in a booming and vibrant market that has the fastest-growing number of consumers of content and target groups for advertisers?”

Besides Ong and Aiello, other Americans on Star’s management team include chief information officer Edward Hanapole, senior vice president of government affairs Joe Welch, vice president of program strategy and development Donovan Castillo-Mohlman, legal counsel Andrea Fessler, and senior vice president of ad sales Karen Davidson.

At a staff lunch arranged by Ong, they spoke of how not only their careers, but their spouses, partners and families have thrived since moving to Asia, lack of Fruity Pebbles and first-run American Idol notwithstanding.

RECRUITMENT MODE

Eager to recruit other American All-Stars, Ong’s executive wish list includes “creatives of all kind, sales executives, digital media, finance, people with legal backgrounds that want to use the skill in a more operational role, Asian diaspora who have spent some time working in the U.S. media and want to come home, programmers, researchers, production skills, engineering and marketing.”

“We place a high value on creativity and entrepreneurship,” she said. “The culture today at Star is one that embraces an entrepreneurial spirit with a strong focus on goals and results.”


(Visit Multichannel.com for an expanded Q&A with Laureen Ong.)

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