Nat Geo Taps Ong to Lead U.S. Net

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National Geographic Channel tapped broadcast-station and cable veteran Laureen Ong as president of the domestic network it plans to launch by the end of the year.

Ong joins National Geographic after a three-year stint as vice president and general manager of Fox Television Stations Inc.'s WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C. Before that, Ong ran Fox-owned station KSAZ-TV in Phoenix, Ariz.

National Geographic plans to announce her appointment today (May 1).

The launch this winter sets the stage for the long-anticipated domestic battle between National Geographic and Discovery Communications Inc.

Ong-who knows the competitive environment in local television and regional sports markets well-said she looks forward to the rivalry.

"Failure is not an option," said Ong, who will be based in National Geographic's Washington headquarters, not far from Discovery's Bethesda, Md., campus. "I don't like losing."

Before joining Fox, Ong worked at Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. programming arm from 1994 through 1996. While there, she was senior vice president and general manager at various SportsChannel regional networks, including the Prism premium film and sports service in Philadelphia.

The international-channels venture was originally a 50-50 joint venture between National Geographic Television and NBC when it launched in 1997. In 1998, Fox Entertainment bought a 50 percent stake in the venture, leaving NBC and National Geographic with 25 percent each.

NBC has no stake in the domestic channel. Fox owns 75 percent and National Geographic Television owns 25 percent.

National Geographic executives said they're still tweaking their programming lineup, noting that much of the programming will come from the 1,000-plus-hour library it's built with its international channels.

National Geographic's first international launch was in the United Kingdom in 1997. The company's international channels, offered in 11 different languages, now reach 52 million subscribers in 63 countries.

"Our hope would be that the majority of programming that you would see on the [domestic] National Geographic Channel you might see on any of the territories in which we operate," National Geographic Ventures president and CEO Rick Allen said.

But the channel will launch without its flagship National Geographic Explorer series, which National Geographic Television now licenses to CNBC. The CNBC license doesn't expire until 2004, Allen said.

National Geographic may, however, run segments from Explorer on the domestic channel, Allen said. "[CNBC has] indicated a willingness in essence to license back to the channel elements of that," he added.

The only carriage deals National Geographic has announced so far are with DirecTV Inc. and AT & T Broadband. Sources said the company will soon announce a deal with another MSO, which gives it another 2 million subscribers.

National Geographic Channel will launch in at least 10 million homes, and the deals it has in place so far guarantee that it will reach 25 million within three years, sources said. The channel is offering cable operators launch fees of "mid-teens per sub," they added.

The commitments with AT & T Broadband and DirecTV alone will give the network more than 20 million subscribers within five years.

Fox has appointed several executives from News Corp.-owned companies, including Ong, to National Geographic posts since buying the majority stake. In November, David Haslingden, president of News Corp.'s Star TV Asian satellite venture, was named CEO of National Geographic Channels International.

Ong's television career began in 1974, when she handled traffic operations at TVS Network in New York. She held different posts at CBS Sports and the CBS Television Network from 1971 through 1986, before moving to start-up regional network SportsVision in Chicago in 1981, where she worked as vice president of programming and administration.

She later held sales positions at syndication company MTM Distribution Group, Philadelphia ABC station WPVI-TV and San Francisco NBC station KRON-TV.

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