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Ford to Leave National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel programming head John Ford is eyeing the big screen.

He will step down as executive vice president of programming and production for NGC, but he will stay with the network through at least August. NGC is also in discussions to retain Ford as a consultant.

A search for his successor will commence Friday, with a number of current programming staffers expected to be in the hunt.

During a phone conference with reporters, Ford said he wants to pursue feature-length documentaries, fact-based scripted fare and interactive projects. One project that could materialize: a film inspired by his father, who was a pilot in the Pacific during World War II.

He mentioned a trio of current executives as perhaps having the right stuff to succeed him: senior VP of programming Heather Moran, senior VP of production and development Juliet Blake and senior VP of special programming Michael Cascio.

NGC president Laureen Ong said she anticipates that those three executives will throw their hats in the ring for the service’s top programming post. “I would be surprised if they didn’t go after the job; they’re an aggressive team,” she added.

Ong -- who is open to inking a first-look deal with Ford and his Basset Ridge Productions -- said it will be tough to replace him, and whoever is ultimately appointed needs to have “a passion for the nonfiction genre. You can’t walk someone out of the entertainment world. [The candidate] has to know nonfiction, care about nonfiction. It has to be in your blood.”

She added that the National Geographic Society will have a say in the process, as the 118-year-old group has a legacy and a mission to uphold. Fox Networks Group owns two-thirds of NGC, while National Geographic Ventures, the taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, controls the balance.

Ford came to NGC in August 2003 from rival Discovery Networks U.S. six months after Billy Campbell was named president of that programmer. Many had expected Ford to get that gig. Campbell last month lost that spot in a reorganization under new Discovery CEO David Zaslav.

During his tenure, NGC’s Nielsen fortunes have risen significantly. Prior to his arrival, the network never aired a show that produced a 1.0 household rating. Since then, there have been 29, including three in the first quarter.

Moreover, the network had been coming up short against its target demo of adults 25-54, without any earning a 0.4 grade against that group. Now, 28 bear that distinction, according to network officials.

Ford and Ong also pushed the network to record all of its shows in the HD format.

The executives said NGC would begin making upfront presentations to specific advertising-agency groups later this month.