Nat Geo Shake-up: Behind the Cable Net's Swift Regime Change
This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When David Lyle and Howard T. Owens joined National Geographic Channels in late 2011, as CEO and president, respectively, their mandate was to make the 21st Century Fox property a force in the cable landscape -- not just another middle-of-the-road reality-show hub. At first, viewers responded. After just a year sharing the helm of Nat Geo, ratings surged to 12-year highs (up 29 percent in its targeted adults 25-to-54 demo). But as the full scope of their aggressive slate started to roll out in 2013, that growth stalled, and no truly viable unscripted hit has been produced.
So Fox's move April 15 to replace them with seasoned Rupert Murdoch hand David Hill, who oversees American Idol and is adding the title of chairman of National Geographic Channels U.S.; and Nat Geo marketing exec Courteney Monroe, who was upped to CEO, signals a new direction at the company. (In addition, Lyle's and Owens' contracts were coming to an end and both were said to be eager to leave Washington, D.C., and return to Los Angeles.) It's also just three months after NPR vet Gary E. Knell was named president and CEO of National Geographic Society. The Society, while owning a minor stake in the channels, splits the six seats on the NGC board with Fox. The Society is said to have taken issue with some of Owens' programming choices -- particularly, according to one source, the partnership with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on the scripted Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy telepics -- but his ouster ultimately came down to ratings.
Nat Geo ended last year nearly unchanged, with the evenings averaging a steady 143,000 viewers in the demo over the relatively small distribution of 84 million U.S. homes. But with so many big swings, stability wasn't enough. The net spent much of the first quarter hyping the March 14 special Live From Space, a telecast from the International Space Station and Houston's Mission Control that clocked just a 0.2 rating in the demo -- an especially soft note for Lyle and Owens to go out on.