Laureen Ong may have been one of the few people who believed that the hard-driving News Corp. and the gentle National Geographic Society could co-exist in running a cable network.
She was also one of the few who could make it happen, to hear some people tell it. “They wanted to be our partner, but were nervous about being our partner,” Anthea Disney, executive chairman of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. and a board member of the National Geographic Channel, says of News Corp. executives. “She had to constantly win them over to understand she was on their side.”
Ong, the Women in Cable and Telecommunication's 2005 Woman of the Year, has led the channel as president for five years, driving its distribution into 56 million homes — many on expanded-basic tiers — and overseeing its evolution from a network dependent on the National Geographic library to one laden with original programming that has pleased the Society by staying true to the brand.
In the third quarter of 2005, Nat Geo averaged 160,000 adults in its core 25-to-54 age demo, an 84% gain over the same time last year.
“She is a terrific talent. Her team works so well together,” says Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group. He notes that Ong reinforces the Nat Geo brand not only through its programming but through its promotional efforts as well.
At the network, Ong is known as a results-oriented boss who accepts no less from employees than from herself. “My style is one of empowerment … and really pushing people out of their comfort level to get to the next level of achievement,” she says, conceding that she had to learn a bit more diplomacy at Nat Geo to deal with the dual corporate cultures.
Mellow has rarely been used to describe Ong's style, largely because she has played the outsider at almost every job, be it programming the sports anthology show CBS Sports Spectacular against ABC's Wide World of Sports or being a rare female baseball executive as the head broadcasting official of the Chicago White Sox from 1981-87. There, she helped launch the SportsVision regional channel. She has also been a limited partner in the team's ownership for the past 20 years.
Ong showed her mettle when Sox announcer Ken Harrelson told an off-color joke at a dinner meeting that she felt was designed to test her. “Was I going to laugh or was I going to fall apart?” she recalls. “It was another example where I had to bridge a culture.”
Ong has generally dealt with challenges consistently: forget the game-playing and focus on the job at hand.
That steeliness helped her land the Nat Geo job. Jeff Shell, the former CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide and now the president of programming at Comcast Corp., says Ong impressed him as general manager at WTTG, Fox's Washington, D.C., affiliate, when she got caught in the middle of a retransmission-consent dispute between Fox and Cox Communications Inc.
“We had to turn off WTTG for a couple of days in Cox markets,” Shell says. “It was a very bad thing for her business. She managed it very deftly, both the internal politics and the external part. She very much impressed me.”
Ong says she simply fought hard for her station's interests. “I was very vocal about my position — that we needed to resolve it quickly, and what were we going about it?”
That determinism and confidence appealed to the Nat Geo board in her job interview. “It never occurs to me that I am going to fail,” Ong says.
“We felt she had that combination of relentless determination and charm and focus, and she wanted it,” Disney says. “She walked into the room talking about it. It was inspiring to us. She clearly believed in it.”
Between her April 2000 arrival and the Jan. 1, 2001, launch Ong hired 120 people and built a digital state-of-the-art studio.
For now, she's focused on the network's HDTV launch, distribution and keeping the programming fresh. And while she talks about her future in Nat Geo terms, it's easy to hear the ultimate outsider mull even greater challenges. “I like to fix things, launch things. As we grow the business, I think what else is out there? What new mountain is there for us to climb?”