John Ford: A Process of Re-Discovery

The Discovery Channel is trying to reclaim its spot as the preeminent non-fiction cable channel with one of the company's most seasoned executives leading the charge. It seems like a natural fit for a 15-year Discovery veteran, but new President/General Manager John Ford followed an unusual route to his current post: Ford took a Discovery detour and spent the last four years as a top exec for one of Discovery's main rivals, the National Geographic Channel.

Ford's rare blend of Discovery experience and outsider perspective made him a top executive target for Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who took over last spring. After a slide, Discovery's ratings were on the uptick, but Zaslav wants the network to continue its appeal with younger viewers attracted to shows like Dirty Jobs and Monster Garage, and bring back Discovery's blue-chip science and history programs that cater to slightly older audiences, long Discovery's core viewers. Ford, he says, was the right person.

“John understands brands and how to deliver great content and great personalities,” Zaslav says. “He knew what Discovery was in its early days, and has a sense of what Discovery needs to be on a contemporary basis to capture viewers' interest and imagination.”

When Ford left Nat Geo in May 2007 to start an independent production company, Zaslav pounced. He offered Ford a post running Discovery Times and the Military Channel, but that job was just a waiting room. When former Discovery GM Jane Root departed in November, Zaslav elevated Ford to run the company's marquee channel.

To complete Discovery's turnaround—an effort dubbed “Discovery 3.0” by Ford's longtime colleague, Discovery Studios President Clark Bunting—Ford says he is borrowing from his days in and outside the Discovery fold.

“At its best, Discovery is a blend of engagement, entertainment and information,” Ford says. “If they don't come away feeling smarter, that is not the Discovery experience. But if they feel a little bored, that is not the Discovery experience either.”

Simply putting on entertaining gear-head shows, he says, isn't enough, but neither are educational science specials: “We need to deliver on both.”

Ford's experience as a non-fiction programmer drives his plans. A longtime history buff (he recalls a Time-Life encyclopedia of the Civil War as a childhood favorite), Ford majored in history at Duke University and received a master's in public administration from the Lyndon B. Johnson School at the University of Texas. After a stint in the development department at public stations KERA-FM/TV Dallas in 1976, he got a job in programming with Philadelphia's PBS station, WHYY. He joined Discovery Communications in 1989 to head its corporate partnerships and programming arm, where he swayed companies to sponsor Discovery shows.

When the company purchased The Learning Channel in 1991, Ford didn't think it was a good fit for Discovery. But he was assigned to propose programming for it, and soon after was tapped to be the channel's first general manager.

Thinly distributed and low-rated, TLC was dry and information driven—one of the early shows, Bunting recalls, was titled Fun With Taxes. Armed with only $2 million for programming, Ford slowly replaced the lineup with how-to shows and female-friendly lifestyle programs. One of his biggest successes was Trading Spaces, which vaulted TLC to cable's ratings elite. “We went from no rating to a 0.9 rating by 1998,” Ford recalls.

“John delivered on the promise of a lifestyle network,” says Bunting. By 2001, Discovery tapped Ford to head a newly formed content group that included its TV networks' programming and Websites.

But by then, the dot-coms had dried up. Discovery's sizable Internet division had to be cut, and reportedly lost $150 million. Ford had to slash costs by 85%, and that meant eliminating employees. “These were fine people who had done a great job, but the business plan just didn't work,” he says.

Also part of his job was heading programming for Discovery's 13 networks. When Discovery needed a president for its networks, many observers saw Ford as the natural fit. But that job went to Billy Campbell, and Ford was reposted to start Discovery's high-definition channel. He left in 2003, intending to take a sabbatical.

It was a short leave. Six months later, National Geographic picked him to be its EVP of programming. Once again, Ford was trying to transform a low-rated network, this one with just 40 million subs. He saw Discovery had gone to younger and more personality-driven series like American Chopper, and Ford sensed an opening for Nat Geo. Discovery's gear-head shows, he says, “opened the door for us to do science, history, things like Egyptian mysteries. We found a value position with viewers and advertisers who saw us as an alternative.”

Overall, Nat Geo's ratings grew steadily. With any new program, Ford says, it was key to remain true to the brand. He enjoyed successes and some missteps, including a slick series called Crash Test Human where a host would try protective suits in different disasters. Ford loved the concept, but ratings were low—the show didn't fit the Nat Geo mold, he says.

“People talk about their hits, but I think the misses really make you grow as an executive,” he explains. “You tuck those experiences away.” 

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