PASADENA, CALIF. — Newly minted National Geographic Channels president Howard Owens put his
stamp on the network at the recent Winter Television Critics Association Tour by tapping prolific reality
producers Craig Piligian and Thom Beers to create separate non-fiction shows for the network,
as well as Alien director Ridley Scott and his brother Tony to commission a special on the assassination
of President Lincoln. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead caught
up with Owens at the recent Television Critics Association Tour to discuss his plans to create more character-driven
programming for both National Geographic Channel and sister service Nat Geo Wild. The former Reveille managing
director also offers his thoughts on the future of the cable industry as part of a wide-ranging interview.
MCN: How has the transition from a content producer in
Reveille to running a network been for you?
Howard Owens: It’s been pretty much what I expected.
I’ve worked with a variety of networks over the course of
my life, and I have friends and colleagues at different positions.
I’ve been an agent at William Morris after being an
outdoor media owner/operator, so I feel like I understand
the media business and the content business. I’ve found
it to be really dynamic — it’s a challenge, but it’s fun, and
I see huge opportunities.
MCN: What do you think is the perception of National
HO: I think National Geographic Channel’s strengths
currently are its reputation for fairness, its ability to gain
almost primal access to people, organizations, cultures
and places. The channel, is in a way, a reflection of society
and the people I work with want to help to try to change
the world and make a difference. What I’m trying to do is
to help us do it in as entertaining, stimulating and current
way possible. We’re good storytellers and have great access.
MCN: Nat Geo is known for high-profile specials. Will
you look to continue that trend or will you focus on
HO: Before I got there, there was a big focus on specials
and not as much focus on series. Then TV shifted — people
like series and continuity.
As much as viewers like specials like our upcoming Killing
Lincoln, you want the ability to tune in each week to
see recurring characters and see plots that you know what
will happen, but you don’t know how it’s going to happen.
Th ere’s a renewed focus on series television, and something
we don’t have enough of are characters that speak
to our audience and represent National Geographic Channel.
It’s something that we’re working on very diligently.
MCN: You have a major breakout series character in
Cesar Millan. How will you replicate that success?
HO: We have [Dog Whisperer
star] Cesar Millan at
Nat Geo Wild and he’s a
huge star, and the idea is to
find things to complement
Cesar and to complement
the Dog Whisperer. There’s
been huge growth at Nat
Geo Wild, and the idea is to
keep the foot on the gas to
keep sharing stories about
their interaction with people
and Mother Nature
and animals and humanity.
That’s doing incredibly
well and the idea there is
to keep it fueled.
Overall, we want more
characters and more series.
When we do specials
at either place, the idea is
to make them big, to make
them resonate and to make
them meaningful. We have
an incredibly active development
pipeline for both channels.
The idea is to help build
our audience that we already
have, which is an engaged,
intelligent, diverse, viewer
MCN: You seem to be moving
in that direction with the
green-lighting of new series
from realty series bigwigs
Craig Piligian (Wicked Tuna) and Thom Beers (Are You
Tougher than a Boy Scout?).
HO: Those are things that I think are essential, but we
will also look at going after the next big storyteller before
they turn into Thom or Craig or Tony or Ridley Scott. National
Geographic has a history of attracting talent from
a variety of fields, and the channel needs to gear up and
do the same and be a talent beacon.
MCN: Is it important for the National Geographic Channel
to establish its own brand and identity as a cable
network, regardless of
its ties with the National
HO: The National Geographic
Channel and Nat
Geo have their own identities
and continue to develop,
but we would be fools
not to tap into the undeniable
resources and history
of the society. So it’s sort of
a multilayered opportunity/
quandary, in that you want
to have your own identity
as a TV channel but you
also don’t want to look a gift
horse in the mouth. The society
is a big reason why
I took the job, because of
what National Geographic
stands for and what it represents,
and how much pedigree
and information and
science and research it’s
done and I want to tap into
MCN: How far are you willing
to move the network
away from the National
Geographic Society brand?
HO: The beautiful thing
about National Geographic
is that it’s the world and
everything in it; it’s hard to
go astray. If you look at covers
and stories and ideas that
have been pursued by the magazine, they’re so varied and
intense and forward-thinking — that they’re inspiring for
the channel. I want to lean heavily on that inspiration,
but also we are a television channel and we are forging
MCN: How do you see the future development of the
cable industry and how does National Geographic Channel
fit in that future?
HO: I love the cable business. I think that cable has the best
business model of any media, and if you look at issues of
music and film, cable has a two-way relationship with its
audience. You can buy VOD, you have a pipe into the viewer’s
home, and it’s largely underwritten by advertising. Cable
is as close to digital in my mind than any other media,
and the possibilities are endless.