When Discovery Channel President and General Manager John Ford was writing his 1980 master's thesis at the University of Texas, cable television was still in its infancy. Ford, who had worked for public broadcaster KERA in north Texas, decided that his thesis topic would be the future of television—specifically, what effect the addition of multiple pay channels would have on public TV.
“There were a lot of arguments whether it would be good for television, and my argument was that yeah, the more choices the better,” Ford recalls. “I think it was prescient, but I was taking the work of prescient people and applying it.”
Now, as the head of one of the country's largest cable and satellite channels, Ford is seeing the benefits of the industry's growth firsthand. Reaching more than 98 million U.S. viewers, the network not only has brand appeal (Discovery was second only to ESPN as a “must keep” channel in a survey by SRG released in February), but has attained a permanent place in the pop culture ether. Discovery's brands like “Shark Week” and Dirty Jobs are often referenced in films and on other television shows, a sign of how recognizable the Discovery brand has become.
But before he hopped on the cable bandwagon, Ford started his career raising corporate foundation money at KERA, where he got a crash course in the business of public television. His work writing grant proposals and talking to executives at corporate foundations helped prepare him for his first job in cable, as VP of corporate programming partnerships for Discovery Communications.
He began to shift his focus to programming shortly after joining Discovery, moving to its TLC network in 1991. Ford rose to become the network's general manager, winning two Peabody Awards in the process. Following his eight-year tenure at TLC, he added online experience to his resume as president of Discovery's content group and president of new media.
In 2003, Ford joined National Geographic Channel as its executive VP of programming and immediately worked on strengthening its appeal. “We broadened the mix of genres and the 'brand width' of the channel,” Ford says. “There wasn't a lot of science at National Geographic Channel; all of that paid off in the long run as we had a huge jump in ratings.”
In September 2007, Ford returned to Discovery as president and general manager of Discovery Times and the Military Channel, and that November was named president and GM of the company's flagship channel. Among his first orders of business was to dramatically increase Discovery Channel's original programming per quarter, nearly doubling the network's previous output to about 120 premiere hours.
“Everything we do is about originals [at Discovery],” Ford says. “And that means that we have to be aggressive in developing new properties and have a really strong production department.”
Ford also developed a scheduling strategy to piggyback new shows on successful programs with similar concepts. Wreckreation Nation, which follows a host traveling the country looking at weird local customs, was paired with the well-known Dirty Jobs, which features host Mike Rowe crisscrossing the country to sample strange occupations. He also began to shift the network's focus toward 18-49-year-olds, a slightly younger demo that advertisers covet.
“His content is starting to hit; it is really working and the audience is starting to react to it,” says Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav. “Ratings are up significantly, and he isn't just engaging the male audience on Discovery, but the younger audience.”
The strategies appear to be paying off. Discovery will be bringing back half of its freshman series for second seasons, including Wreckreation Nation, One Way Out, Time Warp, Destroyed in Seconds and How Stuff Works.
Ford credits his time at startup channels like TLC and The Military Channel for preparing him to take the reins at Discovery. “It's like hand-to-hand combat when training to gather an audience, and that's a good thing,” he says. “Coming back to Discovery, I think [the experience] made me stronger.”