Nat Geo's Howard T. Owens on Bill O'Reilly and 'The Bible's' Allure (Q&A)

Howard T. Owens Executive Suite - H 2013
Joshua Cogan

Howard T. Owens Executive Suite - H 2013

The cable channel president tells THR why he went to the mat to stay in business with the "Killing Lincoln" producer and why he'd love to air Showtime's "Homeland."

This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"We want people to be constantly surprised because we're reinventing ourselves but not surprised to the point that they're like, 'What the hell is that?' " Such is Howard T. Owens' challenge at the National Geographic Channels, which he joined as president in November 2011.

The Connecticut native, married with two daughters, has spent the past year and a half broadening the definition of Nat Geo fare, pushing the formerly staid network group into Discovery or TLC territory with series focused on gypsies, UFO hunters, polygamists and doomsday preppers. To date, his reimagination of National Geographic has generated not only headlines but also the biggest numbers in the U.S. network's 12-year history, with viewership in the final quarter of 2012 up 22 percent and 29 percent among total viewers and the target 25-to-54 demographic, respectively.

In February, he shattered those records again with the presidential telepic Killing Lincoln, a scripted adaptation of Fox News Channel personality Bill O'Reilly's best-selling book. The entry averaged 3.4 million viewers (like Fox, Nat Geo is a News Corp. company). Owens, 45, the son of a one-time Democratic state senator from Connecticut and himself a former lawyer, William Morris agent and founding partner of The Biggest Loser production company Reveille, sat down during a March trip from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to discuss the genre's biggest mistakes, the appeal of The Bible and why he'd like Malcolm Gladwell and Showtime's Homeland on his air.

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The Hollywood Reporter: If you could gather all of the cable executives in one room, what's the first thing you'd discuss?

Howard T. Owens: The competition. With Jeff Zucker at CNN, The Weather Channel, CNBC, there are more competitors posing as news divisions trampling in the general-entertainment universe. I think it's smart that they're doing it, but it means more people bidding on a project, and it's harder to get great stories at great prices as a result. And the more you have to invest, the harder it is to make a return on that investment.

THR: What did you learn about the pitch process going from the seller, at Reveille, to a buyer?

Owens: I think it helped a lot. As a producer, I was very controlling of the pitch process. If I were working with someone who wasn't articulate enough or wasn't exhibiting enough passion -- whether it was a writer or a young showrunner -- I sometimes wouldn't go through with it because it would be too much heavy lifting and you lost a little confidence. Now on the buy side, I can buy from someone who is monochromatic and seemingly lacks vision because he might have a great tape, which he went to the foothills of the Alleghenies or wherever the hell he went to make it. My point is that I don't need to be romanced as much in a pitch -- but I think that's because the business has changed radically, too. We're now in a tape?driven business. When we sold The Biggest Loser or Nashville Star at Reveille, we sold them on a piece of paper. Now people come in with tape, and it allows you to have a more immediate guttural reaction.

THR: Who do you wish was on your air but isn't?

Owens: I'd like to be in business with Elon Musk, who is an incredible 21st century explorer. We'd like to work with Ray Kurzweil on the topic of "singularity" or Malcolm Gladwell, and I'd like to figure out a way to get into business with [author] Michael Lewis. These are people who are modern-day storytelling explorers in one form or another. I just read a great article about the science of food written by Mary Roach, who wrote the books Stiff, Spook and Bonk. That's someone who I want to be in business with because I love the way she thinks, and I think using science as a storytelling device is great. It's in every food show and every weight-loss show.

THR: How important is noise and controversy to succeed?

Owens: We don't make noise for the sake of making noise. We got a lot of it for SEAL Team Six [Nat Geo's first film about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound]. We aired it two nights before the November election because it was pertinent. We didn't have any inkling of swaying the presidential election; that wasn't the goal. It was a true story everyone knew and wanted to see, and if I aired it two weeks later, it would no longer be timely. In that case, other people end up making the noise for us. Look, we're creatively opportunistic in terms of trying to tell stories that are loud, interesting and catchy, but we're not trying to throw stones and break windows just because. I think we've been able to present subcultures that may appear outlandish but are surprisingly relatable, whether its polygamy [Polygamy USA], snake worshipers [Snake Salvation] or preppers [Doomsday Preppers].

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THR: Were there any concerns about alienating the political left in getting into business with Bill O'Reilly on the Killing film series?

Owens: Not at all. Bill O'Reilly is a great storyteller -- a No. 1 best-selling author worldwide, actually. The amount of preorders on Killing Kennedy and now Killing Jesus are staggering. And now, he's a TV producer as well. He's giving me great notes on scripts and things. Other people will put him in a box and say that he is a political pundit for one side. I look at him as an opportunity to bring tons of people to our channel, so I didn't see the downside. I didn't flinch.

THR: It would appear O'Reilly's leverage has soared, with CNN reportedly bidding as much as $2.5 million for Killing Jesus. What did you have to give up to make the deal on that project?

Owens: I don't think Bill would have done it at CNN, though I can't speak for him. I knew that was used to help us step up to the plate, but I really wanted to step up to the plate anyway. We were already in negotiations, so it really didn't affect us. By the way, there were other people interested as well; it wasn't just Zucker trying to reshape CNN. But I thought Bill was very fair. He and [Ridley Scott's company] Scott Free have been good partners, and it feels like we're building a franchise together. They had a little leverage in terms of Killing Jesus, but I had some, too, because we were still in the script phase on Killing Kennedy. If they were going to try to play hardball with Killing Jesus, it would have made me think twice about investing a ton in Killing Kennedy. That's just business.

THR: Looking around the landscape, what's the show that you'd want on your network?

Owens: I love [Discovery's] Gold Rush and [History's] Mountain Men. Both would be amazing National Geographic shows. And, weirdly, I think [Showtime's] Homeland would resonate at National Geographic. We stay factual, so I don't know how we would deal with the creative, but from a tone and feel, you obviously want Homeland on your network.

THR: Cable has done very well with these soft reality docudramas, with A&E's Duck Dynasty leading the pack. Why haven't they worked on broadcast?

Owens: Well, for one, they never give them a chance. Network has gone to the feature film model, where if it doesn't work the first week or the next week, they pull it off. The audience knows they're going to pull it off, and they don't want to invest. Remember, Duck Dynasty did not launch that well. A&E stuck with it, and it grew.

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THR: Can a broadcast network afford to do that?

Owens: Can they afford not to? Can they afford not to believe in their content and take their audiences on new rides with the willingness to break their storytelling devices? You can wait around for the next American Idol to come in your door, or you can figure out different ways to communicate with your audience. No network in town wouldn't take Duck Dynasty or The Bible or Pawn Stars. And they have more money and more marketing power, so there's no reason why they don't have them except that they have a formula, and it's hard to get out of that.

THR: Would you have bid on The Bible, another project with the potential to alienate?

Owens: I believe it was already in development when I got here, so I didn't get a look at it. Had I had a look at it, I think that I would have made an aggressive bid. Religious storytelling has done incredibly well for us. The Gospel of Judas was one of our highest-rated specials in the history of the channel when it came out, and Killing Jesus is good for me, too.

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THR: What's the biggest mistake that reality producers make today?

Owens: There's a follow-the-leader mentality versus "we're going to do something new and different." Then there are the more pedestrian mistakes of producing, too, which are not being strong enough creatively, speaking down to your subjects and being lowest common denominator for the sake of being lowest common denominator. I do think there's an instinct to put the sleaziest and most toxically narcissistic people on TV. I know there is an audience that responds to it, but it's not our cup of tea -- it's never been my cup of tea.

THR: You've moved from Hollywood to D.C. for this gig. Biggest difference in cultures?

Owens: In D.C., a star sighting is a senator of Alabama. In L.A., a star sighting is Charlize Theron at lunch, which is why I try to go to lunch in L.A. as much as possible.