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Exec Interview: John Ford - Broadcasting & Cable

Exec Interview: John Ford

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Faculty Note: Last month, John Ford surprised a lot of his friends and peers in the business (of which he has many of the former and few of the latter) by announcing his departure from the National Geographic Channel. After programming that channel for a few years, and being a part of the core team at Discovery/TLC/Discovery Health and a bunch of other SIlver Spring things since the dawn of it all, John's hanging up an "independent producer's" shingle later this summer.

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Many remember this classic interchange at RealScreen Summit a few years ago, during his Discovery days... Me: "Every day, independent producers everywhere light a candle to Discovery...." John: "And every night we blow it out!"

Actually, John has been a great supporter of a ton of indies over the years and it's this kind of programming mind that we love to tap here in the CableU Interview. Here, then, are his answers to our "Fun Fourteen" questions about him and the business:

What is the key element that makes a program right for your network?
It has to be rich with information and go deeper than others go.

What programs and/or genres are you looking for in the next year?
Science/engineering, natural history, contemporary events. Series and specials.

How important are other platforms like broadband and mobile applications in the initial pitch?
Nothing is as important as the show itself. The other applications are tertiary in value right now -- nice to have, but the program makes the sale.

What's the best way for a producer to pitch you?

We have a great development team that's very responsive to pitches. Due to the large volume, every single pitch, no matter how well we know you, has to go to ngcideas.com.

What do you look for in a first-time producer besides a great idea?
What have they done before, for whom, and how did it rate? Do they "get" NGC -- have they watched the channel? If you don't know anything about the channel's programming, watch and gain some insights before your pitch. Would you ask a stranger to marry you without finding who they are?

What mistakes do producers make when pitching you?Listening too little and, on the the other end of the spectrum, not having a strong point of view.

What can global programmers learn from the US cable network market and from your network in particular?
Audiences are trigger-happy and we need to engage them and constantly keep re-engaging them with our programming. A show can never rest, and neither can a network.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
Hire good people and encourage them to make good decisions.

Ever given?
Prize intra-departmental communication -- a programming-production unit that is honest and direct within the team can conquer just about any challenge.Who in this industry do you most admire and why?

Peter Chernin of News Corp. He has the best combination of left brain-right brain skills I've ever seen.

What's the smartest programming decision you have ever made?
Taking a chance on The Dog Whisperer from a low-cost demo tape.

Dumbest?
Too numerous to mention. Like searching for hay in a haystack.

In all of television, which classic program should be revived?
The Twilight Zone, with a writer the equal of Rod Serling.

Should NEVER be revived?
Adam-12. "Hey, want a donut? "Yeah, let's pull over." Like watching paint dry.

John Ford, Executive Vice President of Programming, National Geographic Channel

As Executive Vice President of Programming for the National Geographic Channel (NGC), John Ford oversees all aspects of NGC’s programming strategy, including development, production, acquisitions and scheduling. His career spans over 25 years in media, including senior executive positions at Discovery Communications, during which Ford presided over three successful channel launches.

In less than three years, Ford’s tenure at NGC has been marked by a string of ratings successes. Shortly after joining NGC in August 2003, Ford began retooling the network’s existing lineup with a robust slate of original, prime-time programming for fall 2004 — including the launch of the largest number of series in the network’s history. The combination of Ford’s vision and an aggressive marketing campaign yielded the fastest ratings growth for any network, cable or broadcast, and unleashed a string of record ratings each successive quarter.

The momentum has continued to build — to date, 21 of 25 of the network’s top-rated shows have aired during 2005–2006, including Inside 9/11, NGC’s highest-rated show, which garnered a 3.1 HH rating during its two-night premiere in August 2005. Ratings in NGC’s target 25–54 demographic in 1Q06 were up 15 percent over 1Q05, and in April 2006, The Gospel of Judas delivered a 1.28 in the demo (and a 2.12 household), a whopping 611 percent increase over NGC’s prime-time average in April 2005. Moreover, in the most recent Beta Brand Survey, NGC moved into the No. 1 spot for programming viewers rated as “high quality” and “distinctive” among all basic cable and broadcast networks. These are not unusual achievements considering Ford’s track record in the industry.

Ford’s distinguished career includes serving as President of New Media for Discovery Networks U.S., where he was responsible for all interactive, Internet, high-definition (HD) and video on demand products, including the network launch and early growth of Discovery HD Theater.

From February 2001 to August 2002, Ford was President of Discovery’s Content Group, spearheading all content and programming for Discovery’s stable of U.S. networks and online services, including the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Digital Networks, Discovery Kids Channel and discovery.com.

Beginning in February 1999, Ford was President of Discovery Health Channel and discoveryhealth.com, managing both services from inception through their acquisition and incorporation of their primary competitor, The Health Network.

Beginning in August 1991, shortly after its purchase by Discovery, Ford led TLC (The Learning Channel) from relative obscurity to a position as one of the top 10 cable networks. He served as TLC’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, promoted to that position in May 1996 from Senior Vice president, Programming.

On his watch, TLC’s primetime ratings increased 800 percent and its programming garnered 16 CableAce Awards, the Board of Governors' "Creator's Award,” the Golden ACE, two national Emmy® Awards and two Peabody Awards.

Ford first joined Discovery as Vice President, Corporate Partnerships, in the fall of 1989. In this position, he developed groundbreaking corporate partnership programs to help finance program productions. Prior to joining Discovery, Ford worked for 11 years in public television, holding positions in the Dallas, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia markets.

Ford earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and a B.A. in history from Duke University. He is a member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and serves on the board of advisors for the New York Film/TV Festival.

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