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Nat Geo Programming Chief To Step Down

After leading the network through a time of tremendous ratings growth, John Ford is stepping down as head of programming for National Geographic Channel to pursue independent creative projects, including feature films.

Ford, who joined Nat Geo from rival cable outlet Discovery in 2003, will stay on through at least August to help the network find a successor and possibly remain on afterwards as a consultant. He has not discussed rejoining his former employer and consulting at Nat Geo would preclude that, he says.

Instead and for the time being, he will look to produce both scripted and unscripted documentary-style feature films, something he has wanted to do for a long time. A history buff, Ford has already begun work on a movie inspired by his father, an aviator in the Pacific during WWII. He also has unformed ideas about emerging media projects.

“These are itches that for a while I’ve wanted to scratch so I figure it’s time to go ahead and scratch them,” he says.

Ford has already set up a production company for his new projects – Bassett Ridge Productions. He has been in talks about leaving his full-time gig for some time and goes the channel’s blessing, says National Geographic President Laureen Ong.

“Like all creative people, they always have that other thing they want to do and I respect that,” says Ong. “We’re obviously very sad and sorry to see him leave, but he has had a great track record here and we hope we will have a continued relationship with him.”

Ford, well liked within the industry, declined to say whether his contract with Nat Geo was up.

Ford joined Nat Geo to head its programming team in July 2003, several months after he left the network's biggest competitor, Discovery. As executive vice president of programming for NGC, he has overseen originals, acquisitions, production and scheduling through a period of huge ratings, distribution and ad sales increases over the past few years ().

On Ford's watch, Nat Geo has grown from an emerging network to a near-fully distributed one, increasing carriage from 45 million homes to more than 63 million, boosting ratings quarter over quarter and tripling ad sales. With Ong able to focus on strategy and distribution,  Ford worked to bring the almost seven-year-old channel nearly 30 hit shows with ratings over a 1.0HH.

They included the critically-acclaimed documentary Inside 9/11, which shattered the channel’s previous ratings record with a 3.62 household rating, as well as Inside the US Secret Service, Gospel of Judas, Lockdown: Women Behind Bars and In the Womb: Multiples, each of which earned more than a 1.0 household rating. In February, 2007, Nat Geo was up 45% over last year in prime to 410,000 total viewers and 49% in adults 18-49 to 201,000 viewers.

Ford has also spearheaded Nat Geo’s move into HD programming. The channel launched an HD simulcast in January, 2006 and Ford has worked to shoot nearly all new programming in the high-definition format.

After 14 years at Discovery, Ford announced he would leave his programming chief slot in February, 2003 (), several months after Billy Campbell was named President of the company, a role many thought Ford would be tapped for.

Campbell just lost that job  as the position was eliminated in a restructure from new President/CEO David Zaslav .

Ford was chief programmer as president of Discovery's U.S. content group and later moved to head new media when Campbell joined as the company's president. Over the years, Ford also led TLC and Discovery Health.

Nat Geo will officially begin looking for Ford’s replacement tomorrow. His three deputies are the top internal contenders. They are: Heather Moran, SVP, Programming; Juliet Blake, SVP, Production/Development; and Michael Cascio, SVP Special Programming.

Nat Geo is a joint venture of the Fox Network Group, which owns two-thirds, and National Geographic Ventures, the taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, which owns one-third.