[COMMUNITY] Lauren Ong - National Georgraphic's President
- National Geographic's Laureen Ong
By Anna Carugati
The National Geographic Channel in the U.S. launched in January of
2001. In its first two and a half years, it was the channel with the
fastest-growing distribution in America. In its second two and a half
years, it was the fastest-growing in terms of ratings. And during the
second quarter of this year, the channel enjoyed its highest ratings
ever, a clear sign that it continues to build an audience. Laureen
Ong, the president of the U.S. National Geographic Channel, explains
how she got the channel started and how she continues to increase its
TV DOCS: The National Geographic Channel launched when many other
factual-programming channels were already established. What was it
like starting up a channel in a very crowded TV landscape?
ONG: It was very daunting. I was nervous about making sure that all
the expectations were met, for the consumers in particular, because
the brand meant something to people. The scary part for me would have
been to flip the switch and launch the channel and then not have it
live up to the expectations of the brand. Thank God, National
Geographic had been in the television-production business for 35
years prior to starting the channel, so we were able to launch off
the back of a world-class, blue-chip documentary library. Not a lot
of networks can say that. The library was an important asset for us
at launch, but now we're producing more than 300 hours a year, and 99
percent of that is shot in HD.
TV DOCS: A lot of channels started as factual channels, and then with
time, either because they needed to broaden their audience or because
of the high cost of programming, they veered from their original
mandate of presenting only non-fiction programming. How has National
Geographic been able to remain loyal to its mission?
ONG: There are a few reasons for that. When you are a self-made brand
there is a wider range of things you can be for the audience. The
National Geographic brand has been around for 116 years, and it has
stood for something for a very long time. So when the National
Geographic Society puts its name on a magazine or a book or a
channel, it means something. National Geographic's mission is well-
knownthey like to inspire people to care about the planet. That is
at the core of their mission. It's about exploration, science, nature
and all of those things. The name and brand are the core of this
channel. We have to remain true to that mission because we are not
self-made. That's really what differentiates us from other peoplethe
strength of the brand behind us. People expect from us the
spectacular imagery, the authenticity, the quality, the incredible
storytellingall of that has always been something that's been very
important to this brand.
TV DOCS: Does it ever happen that the brand becomes a bit limiting
for what you want to do?
ONG: The challenge is to get people to understand that the National
Geographic brand is evolving, it's contemporary and it's relevant.
Yes, I can't say it's not a challenge, but I think that because of
the medium we are in, and our willingness to experiment in new media,
and the appeal we have with the younger audiencethey look at our
programming and it resonates so strongly with themit all helps to
overcome a lot of the baggage that we might have. I would say we have
more baggage with people who think they know the brand, but have
actually never sampled it.
TV DOCS: How has the channel managed to remain fresh and relevant?
ONG: Sure, there are a lot of things that are current that are well
within our provincerelevant topics like our Inside 9/11, Final
Report, and certainly our signature programming Explorer, where we
are really able to look at things like the world's most dangerous
things. Those are relevant topics to today's audience. If you pick up
the magazine you will also notice a lot of new approaches they are
taking as well. There are articles about caffeine, about longevity,
about obesity and about oil. They cover current events as well as
other subjects that people care about today.
TV DOCS: How are you attracting younger viewers? They are elusive for
any channel nowadays.
ONG: After a while there is only so much of the reality shows that
you can watch before it gets mind-numbing. The only thing that I can
be thankful for is that there is a large number of people out there
who want to be entertained but they also want to learn something, and
that's where we [come in]. Everybody needs to watch something that is
entertainment for entertainment's sake, but at some point, people do
come back and say, you know what? If I'm going to spend time watching
something, I want to learn something, too.
TV DOCS: How does the channel work with the magazine and the National
Geographic Society in developing content?
ONG: We have joint editorial meetings, so everybody has a seat at the
table from whatever part of the [company] they represent. We look for
ways in which we can collaborate. It's actually much harder to do
than people realize, because we all have different time frames that
we work under. Sometimes what works well in the magazine doesn't
always translate well into TV, but when we are able to get all the
stars to align, we absolutely can hit it out of the ballpark with
things like The Gospel of Judas.
TV DOCS: How does the channel contribute to the Society's mission of
encouraging exploration, education and conservation?
ONG: We do a number of things in conjunction with them. National
Geographic provides schools with teaching materials. We used that
connection the Society has with schools [to create] our Everyday
Explorer program. We have found that field trips are being cut out of
a lot of schools, and Everyday Explorer brings field trips back to
schools. Kids can't start to think about, How can I find Afghanistan,
if they don't even know what state is next to them. In order to get
kids interested in trying to understand the world, you need them to
get excited about exploring their backyard. Conservation and caring
about the planet are also part of Everyday Explorer, which is clearly
a line extension of the mission and something that we do as part of
the National Geographic family.
TV DOCS: How important is it to experiment in new media?
ONG: There is no doubt that when we look forward and see how people
are consuming media, new media is a very, very important part of the
landscape and it cannot be ignored. In particular for our brand and
for the consumer who loves National Geographic and our programming,
we know that they are at the forefront of new media. Our viewers are
more likely to experiment with it, so for us not to have a place at
the table of new media would be silly. We have a very big presence in
video on demand. People generally watch us for very long periods of
time, and it is very heartwarming to see that happen. We are also
experimenting with cut-down versions and smaller snippets of our
shows, because we have to be mindful of how wireless and other
technology is being used. What are consumers likely to have an
appetite to view? I don't know that anyone would want to watch a two-
hour documentary on their cell phone. But would they watch 20 minutes
of Dog Whisperer? Absolutely.
TV DOCS: How do you work with the other National Geographic channels
around the world to coordinate programming or perhaps share costs on
some of the bigger projects?
ONG: We work with our international channels very closely, because
clearly it makes the most sense for us to go into a co-production
with them. So whenever and wherever we can, we absolutely try to do
that. They have an office here in Washington, D.C., right down the
hall from us. They are part of the editorial and programming
TV DOCS: National Geographic in the U.S. has attracted core
advertisers that have been loyal to the channel.
ONG: Absolutelyin fact, that is a great story for us. When we
launched the network we only had 10 million subscribers, but we had
about 100 blue-chip advertisers that signed on even though we only
had 10 million subs. Usually the threshold before anyone will even
open the door to have a conversation with you is 50 million subs. We
had a lot of people who believed in us placing a bet on us. That is a
real testimony to the brand. That we were able to do that and grow is
really a story right in itself.
American Women in Radio & Television Announces Laureen Ong,
President, National Geographic Channel, as Keynote Speaker for Gracie
June 8, 2006 (McLean, VA) - American Women in Radio & Television
(AWRT) is pleased to announce that Laureen Ong, President, National
Geographic Channel (NGC), will be this year's Gracie Allen Awards
Luncheon Keynote Speaker.
The Gracies luncheon will take place on Tuesday, June 20, 2006 at
12:30 p.m. at the Tavern on the Green New York. The Gracies Luncheon
will be hosted by CBS News' The Early Show Anchor, Rene Syler. The
Gracie Allen Awards recognizes exemplary programming created for
women, by women, and about women in all facets of electronic media,
including radio, television, cable and web-based media.
(The Gracies Lunch is preceded by the National Gracie Gala the
evening prior at the Marriott Marquis Hotel Broadway Ballroom.)
Laureen Ong was hired as the National Geographic Channel's President
and first employee in April 2000.
In 2005, Ong was named as Woman of the Year by WICT (Women in Cable
Telecommunications ) and was made a member of the C-100, an
association of some of the nation's most influential Chinese-
Americans. Since launching the popular new network on New Year's Day,
2001, she has seen NGC earn some of the fastest distribution growth
in cable history, and more recently, the fastest ratings growth in
Broadcasting to an initial 10 million households, it now reaches an
impressive 60 million homes -- and counting. To celebrate its fifth
anniversary this past January, Ong oversaw the launch of NGC-HD, and
all high-definition channel.Ong has worked in broadcasting her entire
career, breaking down barriers each step of the way.
She was Vice President of Broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox,
where she was instrumental in launching one of the first regional
sports networks, SportsVision. She is still a limited partner with
the World Champion Chicago White Sox today. Prior to joining NGC, Ong
was Vice President and General Manager of WTTG, one of Fox's largest
and most successful television stations.
Ong was the first, and possibly the only, Asian-American woman to
lead a top ten market affiliate. "I am delighted that Laureen Ong
will give the keynote address for the Gracies luncheon," said Maria
E. Brennan, CAE, AWRT's Executive Director. "Ms. Ong is one of the
most versatile, resourceful, and creative women in television and I
look forward to hearing her speak about her experiences along the
A black-tie Gala, hosted by award-winning actor, and soon to be talk
show host, Megan Mullally, will be held the previous evening, June
19, 2006, from 6:00-10:00 p.m. in the Broadway Ballroom of the New
York Marriott Marquis Hotel, to honor the 2006 Gracie Allen Awards
National Award winners.The Gracies are presented by the Foundation of
AWRT, the philanthropic arm of AWRT that supports educational
programs, charitable activities, public service campaigns and
scholarships to benefit the public, the electronic media and allied
fields. The Gracie Allen Awards, established in 1975, honors
programming and individuals of the highest caliber in all facets of
electronic media, including news, drama, comedy, commercials, public
service, documentary and sports
The Top 50: The Most Influential Minorities in Cable
Cable diversity is not where it should be, but it's getting better.
That's the consensus we got from cable executives when we asked them
about workplace diversity.
That viewpoint is reflected in our Top 50 Most Influential Minorities
in Cable list, which is dominated by programming executives. By all
accounts, programmers have more people of color in higher positions
than operators. Take a look at the top 10, and you'll see people of
color who run companies (Dick Parsons and Al Liggins), networks
(Christina Norman, Johnathan Rodgers, Debra Lee, Laureen Ong and Ray
Rodriguez) and head up important divisions (Manish Jha, Herb Scannell
and Albert Cheng).
Still, judging by the high quality of MSO executives in the top 20,
senior operator ranks are becoming more diverse, as well.
We've done a few things differently with this list. For the first
time, we ranked the executives, from 1 to 50. We also included an
unranked list of 50 more executives who are knocking at the door.
6. Laureen Ong
president, National Geographic Channel
One of cable's funniest execs, the indefatigable Ong is leading a
ratings and growth success story. National Geographic's reach is 55
million homes as it readies an HD launch on its fifth birthday in
January. Its reputation for hard- hitting storytelling was enhanced
by its four-part review of 9/11 in August.
Committee of 100 Welcomes Two New Members: Laureen Ong and Dr. Morris
(New YorkDecember 27, 2005)--Two prominent Chinese Americans:
President of the NationalGeographic Channel Laureen Ong and Founding
Chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor ManufacturingCompany Ltd. (TSMC) Dr.
Morris Chang have joined the Committee of 100, an organization of
Chinese American leaders.
Laureen Ong: One of the most versatile, resourceful and creative
women in television, Laureen Ong washired as the National Geographic
Channel's (NGC) President and first employee on April 17, 2000. In
thespace of a mere eight months, she hired a staff of 120, built a
state of the art digital studio, and launched theformidable new
network on Jan. 1, 2001.
In almost five years, the Channel has grown at a record settingpace
from 10 million to 56 million subscribers. In recognition of her
career and success with NGC, inNovember 2005, Ong was recognized as
the "Woman of the Year" by WICT, Women in Cable
Prior to becoming President of NGC, Ong served for two years as Vice
President andGeneral Manager of WTTG in Washington, D.C., one of
Fox's largest and most successful televisionstations. Ong was the
first, and possibly only, Asian-American woman to lead a top ten
In acareer filled with firsts, she also helped launch SportsVision in
Chicago in 1982 one of the first regionalsports networks in the
country serving as both the only woman and only Asian-American in
sportsfranchise management. For seven years, she spearheaded
programming and marketing efforts for thenetwork, adding the role of
Executive Producer and VP Broadcasting for the 2005 World Series
ChampionsChicago White Sox baseball team (in which she continues to
hold an ownership stake).
Dr. Morris Chang: Under Dr. Chang's leadership, TSMC pioneered
the "dedicated silicon foundry"industry, and is the largest silicon
foundry in the world. Prior to founding TSMC in 1987, Dr. Chang was
atTexas Instruments for 25 years (1958-1983), where he was Group Vice
President for the company'sworldwide semiconductor business. Selected
by Time Magazine and CNN in 2001 as one of the top 26most influential
CEOs, Dr. Chang was also the recipient of the IEEE Robert N. Noyce
Award forexceptional contributions to the microelectronics industry
in 2000. He is a member of the MIT Corporationand the National
Academy of Engineering, and is on the advisory boards of the New York
Stock Exchange,Stanford University, and the University of California
"The Committee of 100 is delighted to welcome these two prominent
Chinese Americans," said Robert Lee,Chairman of the Committee of
100. "I am confident that their varied expertise and experience will
add greatvalue to our group. We will appreciate their future effort
as we pursue our dual mission of strengthening tieswith Greater China
and encouraging the full involvement of Chinese Americans in all
aspects of American life."
The Committee of 100's 15thAnnual Conference, entitled US China: A
View From the Bridge, will be co-chaired by Jenny Ming, Anthony Sun,
Jerry Yang and Albert Yu. It will be held on April 20-22, 2006 inSan
Francisco, CA, at the Four Seasons Hotel. Morris Chang will be a
keynote speaker on Friday, April 21.Details are available at:
Founded in 1989, the Committee of 100 is an independent, non-profit
membership organization composedof Chinese American leaders in a
broad range of professions. Its dual mission is (1) to encourage
strongerrelationship between the people of the U.S. and Greater China
and (2) to encourage the full participation ofChinese Americans in
all facets of American life. For more information, please
Putting Herself On the Map
Where Laureen Ong Finally Found Herself: At National Geographic
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Laureen Ong didn't set out to preside over one of television's odd
couplings -- that would have been too specific a goal. The most that
the National Geographic Channel president will say about her long-ago
imaginings of herself is, "I always wanted to run something."
Ong knew that when she started her first job, as a receptionist at a
tiny TV network. And she knew it through every purposeful step she
took toward her post at National Geographic, which she assumed six
She had been running Washington's Fox affiliate, WTTG Channel 5, for
two years as general manager when she learned in early 2000 that two
strange bedfellows needed a boss. National Geographic, a video
presence since the 1960s through its television specials, had been
cautious about making the transition to cable, and its leaders
concluded that a partner was needed. They settled on News Corp.'s Fox
Cable Networks Group.
Fox, which had given birth to such broadcast fare as "The Simpsons"
and "Beverly Hills, 90210," was joining forces with the stately and
respected National Geographic Society, whose magazine has been a
fixture of American classrooms and coffee tables for more than a
Beyond the realm of content, there was the matter of institutional
styles. Geographic is "a little more academic-like, and people are
very kind, and when you have something to say to somebody and maybe
you need to say something tough, they find the nicest way of saying
it," Ong says. "Whereas the Fox culture is a little bit more right-
As Russell Howard, National Geographic Channel's vice president of
communications since its inception, says, "The line was that it was a
marriage made in hell."
Ong jumped at the job.
Some people decide early what they want to become -- doctor, lawyer,
movie star -- and move toward the goal. Ong, 53, is a different
breed: She chose a business, started at the bottom and went wherever
opportunity took her.
"That is the funniest thing that separates people," she says, seated
at a small round table in her airy office at National Geographic's
downtown headquarters. "Everybody has opportunities that present
themselves . . . and it's a matter of what choices you make. Do you
identify the right ones? Do you make the choices? Are you willing to
take a chance? Do you have the courage to do certain things that you
haven't done before?"
In person, Ong -- who in November was named Woman of the Year by
Women in Cable Telecommunications -- frequently breaks into laughter
that seems both a social lubricant and a means of deflection.
Ong was born in Manhattan and grew up there and in northern New
Jersey. She has described her Chinese American family as traditional
and conservative, and said she was encouraged to pursue
a "respectable, honorable and female career." (Neither of her parents
ever ran a business, but both of her grandfathers did. "You know how
they say things skip a generation," she jokes.)
For a time, she planned to be a teacher. But after graduating from
Montclair State University in 1974 with a double major in math and
speech/theater arts, she landed a receptionist job at TVS, a New York-
based independent sports network that syndicated and distributed
"I recognized that the opportunity was incredible," Ong says. "It was
a very small company, and I was allowed to do anything I wanted to
do, within reason of course. . . . Even though, yes, I started out
for the first month answering phones until I was promoted out of that
job. But from there I was doing station clearance, I was learning how
you set up a network to carry sporting events, I understood
formatting for shows, live production. It was like getting a master's
degree. It was unbelievable."
Ong became vice president for sports syndication and in 1979 moved
to "CBS Sports Spectacular" as program director. Two years later, a
colleague became an owner of the Chicago White Sox and offered her a
"You know, going to the White Sox by itself was not that interesting
to me," she says. "I jokingly say I ended up in sports because I was
being punished for a previous life. Sports was not a passion of mine.
It was a business. It was a commodity, and I could be very conversant
in it because it was my business and I had to be. . . . I love what I
do now far more than I did when I was in sports."
Her job in Chicago was to help establish a for-pay regional sports
"It was hard on two accounts," she says. "I was with a team that
wasn't the popular cachet team -- if you were going to be in Chicago,
you wanted to be with the Cubs. . . . They had this nice Wrigley
Field, lots of ivy, it's in a nice part of town. The White Sox were
the South Side team, a beer-drinking crowd, and they were always the
stepchild in Chicago. . . . And then, on top of it . . . you then
decide you're going to make people pay to watch you on TV. Now how
much harder could you make your life? People would say: 'I don't
care. I don't want to watch your team anyway.' "
Ong helped make it work, though. The White Sox job, to date, is Ong's
longest-running -- seven years -- and she remains a limited partner
("emphasis on the word limited") in the team. A few bobble-head
baseball dolls reside on a shelf in her office, a memento of those
days. A few weeks ago her World Series ring arrived. "Let me tell
you, that is serious bling," she says delightedly. "It's got like 90
diamonds on it!" Not, she adds, that she's planning to wear it.
Alluding to her years with Fox, Ong concedes that when she got to
National Geographic, "I was a little right-between-the-eyes, and it
was a little shock for them having me here. And probably the best
thing that happened for me was I learned to moderate my style, to be
a little bit more like them, because I realized there was something
nice about being a little bit more like them."
John Ford, the channel's vice president for programming, worked at
Discovery until 2003, when Ong persuaded him to come aboard. "I think
some could consider her aggressive," he says. "I think she's forceful
in a quiet way. Laureen doesn't speak loudly. If she does, it raises
eyebrows because it happens so rarely. She has a quiet, forceful
nature. . . . When she has a goal, she does not let go of it."
(Ong is driven when she's not at work, too. She and her husband,
Richard Skwarek, are devoted bicyclists who put in 20 miles before
work -- she's pedaled as much as 100 miles in a day -- and she often
rides her bike to work. "In the summer, it's so hot," she says,
seeming to savor it, "and you're going uphill, and it's horrible, and
you really can't think about anything else except how bad you feel.")
In her first eight months at Geographic, she hired a staff of 130.
When the channel was launched in January 2001, it was available in a
mere 10 million homes, and wider distribution was a crucial early
goal. Today that total has grown to 59 million. Although Geographic
remains far behind the reach of rival Discovery Channel (nearly 90
million homes), it continues to expand rapidly.
Among the series that have defined National Geographic Channel
are "Dog Whisperer" ("our single most-discussed show," Ong says)
and "Explorer." In August, the channel premiered "Inside 9/11," a
four-hour examination that won critical praise and the largest
audiences in the channel's history; the first run of the special's
Part 2 attracted 3 million viewers. And recently aired was the much-
discussed special "The Gospel of Judas," which drew 2 million
viewers, making it the channel's third highest rated program ever,
after the two parts of "Inside 9/11." (In the works, Ong's team has
the documentaries "In the Womb: Multiples," "In the Womb: Animals"
and the special "Eye of the Leopard," as well as an updated version
of "Inside 9/11." )
Admittedly, even 3 million isn't an "American Idol" number, but in
the cable world, "Inside 9/11" was huge -- a far bigger crowd than
National Geographic or the great majority of other cable channels
pull in on an ordinary day. When discussing their audiences, cable
kingpins often speak of percentage gains rather than absolute
numbers, and Ong expresses particular satisfaction about the
channel's improvement in that regard.
She has reason to: According to figures provided by Nielsen Media
Research, the channel's average audience, excluding specials, rose 53
percent from 2003 to 2004, and 43 percent from 2004 to 2005.
The increases are impressive, although cable audiences tend to be
small compared with those of the broadcast networks: This year the
channel is averaging 159,000 viewers daily, which represents a gain
of roughly 10 percent over 2005.
Still, "the channel has outperformed any of the forecasts that we
considered," says John Fahey, president and chief executive of the
National Geographic Society. "Its ratings are up dramatically."
Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group, says of
the channel, "It's become a real force and player in its genre."
Looking back on her years in the job, Ong says, "What I love to tell
people is that what we have managed to do here at the channel
is . . . create our own culture. We have taken the best from both of
our parents and discarded the rest."
Or in the words of Steven Schifman, the channel's executive vice
president for marketing and digital media: "Fox is very aggressive
and extremely results-oriented. And it's not that National Geographic
isn't. It's just softer, it's different. What Laureen has done is
take the hammer approach and made it the velvet hammer."
'A Tough Landscape'
Last fall, Cable Fax's Cable World compiled a list of the 50 Most
Influential Minorities in Cable. Ong was No. 6. A few weeks later
came the list of the 50 Most Influential Women in Cable, which rated
her No. 32. Does this disparity say something about the acceptance of
minorities in cable?
"I would say that for minorities in general, it's just a tough
landscape," she says. "I don't think it's just this industry."
She says that to her knowledge she is the only Asian American woman
manager in television, noting that that presence is far more likely
to be on-air.
In a recent speech, Ong recalled a day nearly 25 years ago when she
took a group of advertisers to see a White Sox game. As she waited
for the party to assemble, she made small talk with the wife of one
of her guests.
"So," the woman asked her, "how long have you been here?"
"I knew what she meant," Ong said. "But I thought to myself -- this
is her ignorance. This conversation is about her lack of knowledge."
Ong tried to make it go away.
"I got here just before you did," she replied. "About 20 minutes ago."
"No," the woman came back. "I mean how long have you been here?"
Subtlety wasn't working, and Ong ended up giving a full account of
her family's three-generation history in the United States. The woman
was belatedly mortified at having assumed that an Asian person must
be a new arrival in this country. Ong assured her that she held no
In her telling, she emerged from the encounter with a new friend.
"So many people just don't even know they're being insensitive," she
says with no rancor in her voice. "And particularly when you're
Asian, because sometimes people don't really know where you fall on
the rainbow, on the spectrum of people. . . . And so sometimes people
will say things that they think are not racist or whatever, and they
don't realize that they are. And I thought real hard about it, and I
said, 'You know what? I can either help mentor them a little bit, and
have them have a positive experience with me, and then in the future
maybe they won't do it again . . . or they could have a bad
experience with me, and then they will forever think, 'All Asians are
like this.' "
Ong smiles. "I've learned how to be very measured."
Immigrants Enrich American Culture
Ong Delivers Asian Pacific Heritage Keynote
By AUDREY FISCHER
It's a long climb up the corporate ladder from receptionist to
corporate president, but it's a trek that National Geographic Channel
President Laureen Ong has madeseveral rungs at a time. A third-
generation Chinese-American, Ong delivered the 2003 Asian Pacific
American Heritage Month keynote address at the Library of Congress on
"I could not have done it myself without a talented team of people,"
said Ong. "It's never about the individual. It's about the group."
By her own definition, Ong comes from "a traditional Chinese-American
family" and was expected to enter a "respectable female career," such
as teaching. But along the way, she took a job as a receptionist for
a small independent television network and "fell in love with that
When the opportunity to advance to station traffic manager presented
itself, she jumped at the chance, but was nearly a victim of her own
success. When she overheard a conversation in which it became clear
that she was too highly regarded to be spared from the typing pool,
she knew she had to take action.
"First I apologized for overhearing the conversation," said Ong, and,
with all the humility she could muster, thanked her boss "for
recognizing my stellar receptionist skills." But her ace in the hole
was offering to train her replacement to perform at the same high
"The deal was done and the rest is history," said Ong.
Looking back on this pivotal moment in her early career, Ong recalled
believing that "I could achieve anything. After all, this was America
where anything was possible if you worked hard."
Referring to this year's Asian month theme, "Salute to Liberty," Ong
said, "I am a walking example of what liberty means. It's the state
of being free. It's what my ancestors and yours expected to find
Armed with this belief, Ong spent the early days of her career
traveling the country on business. While managing syndication sales
for MTM Distribution in the Midwest region of the country, Ong was
told by many station managers that she was the first Asian American
woman ever to make a sales call.
"Why not make your first purchase from an Asian American woman?"
quipped Ong. Before long, many did.
After more than 25 years of experience in television programming, Ong
became president of the National Geographic Channel in 2000.
"I salute liberty every day by educating and enlightening people
about the world's cultures and how they impact us today. At the
National Geographic Channel, we believe that America is not just a
melting pot but a mosaic consisting of unique, distinct and ever-
present pieces. The channel provides a global sensibility that helps
us better understand our collective experience."
By way of example, Ong shared several film clips from National
Geographic Today. One clip focused on historic Angel Island in San
Francisco Bay, which, during the late 19th century, was the site
where thousands of Asians were processed and often detained prior to
entering the United States. Angel Island stands as a living memorial
to these immigrants, many of whose mournful poems are literally
carved into the walls. The site attracts approximately 46,000 people
The second clip featured cellist Yo Yo Ma, who founded the Silk Road
Project (www.silkroadproject.org) to connect different cultures
through music. The clip included a performance by the Silk Road
Ensemble comprising artists from many different cultural traditions.
"The artistry of Yo Yo Ma in this country is made possible by the
wave of immigration that passed through Angel Island," said
Ong. "From centuries ago to modern day events, Asian culture
continues to influence our experience."
National Geographic Channel President Laureen Ong To Deliver Asian
Pacific American Heritage Month Keynote Address at the Library of
Laureen Ong, National Geographic Channel president, will deliver the
2003 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month keynote address at the
Library of Congress at 11 a.m. on Monday, May 5, in the Mumford Room,
sixth floor of the Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E.,
Washington, D.C. The event is free and open to the public. Tickets
are not required.
Born in New York City and raised in Bergen County, N.J., Laureen Ong
has had more than 25 years of experience in television programming.
She began her career as traffic manager at TVS Television Network,
working on NCAA Basketball, WFL Football and NASL Soccer. In 1982,
she helped launch SportsVision in Chicago, one of the first regional
sports networks in the country. While spearheading the new network's
programming and marketing efforts, she served as executive producer
and vice president of broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox.
Prior to becoming president of the National Geographic Channel in
2000, Ong served for two years as vice president and general manager
of WTTG in Washington, D.C., an affiliate of the Fox Channel. She
came to WTTG from KSAZ-TV, the Fox-owned station in Phoenix, where as
vice president and general manager under the ownership of New World
Communications, she supervised the transition from a CBS affiliation
to a Fox owned-and-operated station. Before joining Fox, Ong served
as assistant general manager for Prism and SportsChannel in
Five Questions for Laureen Ong
By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld
Laureen Ong, the president of National Geographic Channel, last week
was named Woman of the Year by Women in Cable & Telecommunications,
the oldest and largest professional association serving women in the
cable and communications industry. Editor-in-chief Tom Steinert-
Threlkeld talked to Ong in her Washington, D.C., office the evening
before she received her award. Excerpts follow:
MCN: What does it feel like to be Woman of the Year?
Laureen Ong: It is very exciting and very humbling. I was so
surprised. Every year you go to this banquet and you see the woman
that they honor. And I remember the very first one I went to. I
remember thinking to myself, it'll be a gazillion years before this
happens to me. Then, some gazillion years later, it happens to you.
And you're stunned by it. Then you peel back the onion and think
about it, and what we've accomplished, you can understand it and
rationalize it. When you're honored like this it's just a little
We always had incredible milestones that we would look at. We would
be the fastest-growing network in distribution and then following
that we'd have the fastest-growing ratings ever, for any network
and then we'd follow that with another record year. It goes on and
on, every year.
MCN: You're 53. What took you so long?
LO: Well, this is how I would look at that. For some people, it never
happens at all. I'm happy that in my lifetime I had the opportunity
to be honored like this.
I've sat on every single side of the desk in the media. It takes a
little bit longer, because you try to get an understanding: I'm in
syndication, I'm in broadcast sales, I'm running a TV station, I'm
running a regional cable-TV network. And, to get good and to have
some ability to say I've accomplished something at each of those
places, you have to do all of them for at least two, three, four
years. It's cumulative. All of a sudden, you turn around and you're
MCN: What does it say about the National Geographic Channel that a
Chinese-American Chicago White Sox fan from New Jersey is running it?
LO: I would say that I would like to think I represent a lot of
hallmarks that they value. They really value quality. So they look
for someone that is going to shepherd something as important as this
business is for them.
Not too long ago, you would have thought in association of an ethnic
Asian woman to National Geographic, you would expect an iconic
photograph, possibly tribal, possibly topless. But things have
MCN: You're about to start your HD channel. Is America really ready
to see the darker sides of high-definition? Do Americans really want
to see the old age lines on a gorilla? Or the effects of flu in Asia
or the destruction in New Orleans, in that kind of detail?
LO: I don't' know that I would drill down on that, in that kind of
detail. I think people want to see this brand, for a fact, in high
def, for what they expect from us. They expect spectacular imagery
from us, because it gives them a fuller, richer experience, from us.
MCN: How will storytelling on your high-definition channel differ
from the regular channel?
LO: I don't think they're looking so much at the lines on the
gorilla's eyes, as much as they're going to be able to feel as if the
gorilla is in their living room. You feel more a part of the story.
Woman of the Year: Laureen Ong
By Andrew Grossman
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
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
"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
"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?"