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The Master Builder

National Geographic Channel President Laureen Ong spent 15 years working in sports TV. There was just one problem: She hated sports. “I used to joke that it must have been my punishment for a previous life,” she says. “It was a business for me. I liked what I was doing at the time, but it just wasn't my passion.” Luckily, passion returned. The Madonna-esque master of career reinvention now holds a post that suits her well.

An avid biker—she and her husband routinely wake at 5:30 a.m. to ride 15 miles—and a devotee of all things outdoors, including hiking, tennis and skiing, Ong has built the Nat Geo channel's staff from nonexistent into a fighting force of 120. She has also led the channel to steady ratings growth in its nearly five years on the air—it is currently 52 million subscribers strong.

And last year Nat Geo, two-thirds owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., posted the biggest audience growth of any ad-supported cable channel: an impressive 66%.

The network has delivered in a genre in which competitors are struggling. For example, Discovery Channel went down 27% in prime time from February '04 to February '05, sinking to 979,000 viewers from nearly 1.4 million. (In fairness, Discovery is fully distributed, reaching about 89.6 million subscribers.) TLC was also down 36% year to year, averaging 727,000 viewers in prime last month.

“Most people think of Nat Geo as lions and tigers and bears and tribes, but when we say 'dare to explore,' we also cover science and the whole field of exploration with a contemporary lens. That can mean a lot of things,” Ong says. “There are not a lot of networks really covering our turf. Let's just hope it stays that way.”

Planning ahead

Ong arrived at her current position after serving in a variety of roles nationwide. En route, she worked in syndication sales for MTM Enterprises and ad sales for WPVI Philadelphia. She helped manage a sports channel in Chicago, was VP/GM for SportsChannel and Prism in Philadelphia, and held the same post at Fox O&Os in Phoenix and Washington.

“I always try to look a couple of steps ahead of where I am and keep thinking where this is going to lead me,” says the New York native, who double-majored in math and theater arts at Montclair State and picked up a master's in teaching from Columbia.

Following graduation, she took a summer job as a receptionist at TVS Television Network, a sports syndicator. Ong worked her way up the ranks before leaving to start Sports Syndication, a small network, with several co-workers. A series of other sports gigs, including several years with the Chicago White Sox (she is still a minority owner) and SportsVision Chicago, led Ong, then in her 20s, to reconsider her career options.

She decided to capitalize on the TV component of her career, selling sports programming to station managers, to expand her business knowledge. Ong was even willing to take a financial hit to secure a better TV future. She left MTM to work for Capital Cities/ABC—taking a nearly 50% pay cut in the process—selling time for station WPVI. “Part of my investment at that stage was, I needed to learn more,” she says. “Otherwise, I was going to have a golden handcuff going nowhere.”

Here, her math background served her well. She realized TV specials and big-ticket items, such as parades, gave her a 6% profit; day-to-day programming yielded just 3%. She made up that initial salary cut within the year. “Sometimes it appears as if you're going backwards and sideways,” she says, “but it ends up being just fine.”

The cable challenge

Still, Ong always kept her eyes on the prize. After doggedly pursuing a GM position with one of the Fox O&Os for five years, she ending up running two, in Phoenix and Washington. In April 2000, she went from a broadcast station to a cable network. Tapped to head the launch of National Geographic, she had nine months to get it up and running.

To the seasoned TV vet, it was a challenge she couldn't resist. She simply dug through her Rolodex, beefed up her staff and began ramping up programming. Nat Geo turned a profit after four years and is on the road to full distribution. “It seems like I'm cursed with always having to look for another mountain to climb,” Ong says.

Her boss disagrees. “Laureen is someone who is always interested in taking on the tough challenges,” says Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group, “and has the enviable combination of instinct and intelligence to see them through.”

Ong's goals for the channel include branching into high-def, building line-extension businesses, like VOD and broadband, and maintaining ratings growth. Most important, she hopes to build to full distribution—some 86 million subscribers.

“One thing I'm particularly good at is starting something without structure and putting things around it.” The arts enthusiast applies the same philosophy to entertaining as she does to work. “I have no problem making something I've never made before for a dinner party,” says Ong, who welcomes challenges. “I'll do anything for as long as it remains interesting.”