Five Questions for Laureen Ong

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 uncomfortable.

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 53.

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 changed.

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.