by roland flamini | April 8, 2014 | People
National Geographic Channels’ Howard T. Owens is sometimes told he looks like Rob Lowe, the star of his network’s highly rated movie Killing Kennedy
At the National Geographic Channels’ last production conference of the season, its president, Howard Owens, toasted a successful television season and predicted an even better one in 2014—and with good reason. In his two years as head of National Geographic’s three US channels (National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, and Nat Geo Mundo), seasoned producer Owens, 47, has livened up content well outside the traditional scope of the venerable institution on Washington’s 17th Street NW. Movie dramatizations like Killing Kennedy (with Rob Lowe as JFK) and Killing Lincoln set the high level of recent output. (Upcoming big events include Live from Space, a special to be broadcasted from the International Space Station March 14, 250 miles above Earth.) The result: The National Geographic Channel had the best ratings in the network’s 13-year history, averaging half a million viewers per show in prime time—roughly half of the competing Discovery Channel’s viewership, but an increase of some 29 percent in the Owens era.
Owens “moves at 100 miles an hour every day,” says Chris Albert, the channels’ senior communications vice president, but Capitol File was recently able to keep up the pace.
Owens is briefed on the network’s upcoming press tour
Owens meets with marketing and PR staffers to discuss a rundown of the National Geographic Channel’s three-hour presentation at the Television Critics Association’s biannual jamboree in Pasadena, California, which would occur on January 10. Because television schedules are planned so far in advance, 2014 is the first year in which most of the program content reflects Owens’ vision of “a more cohesive programming schedule and plan that reflects the new National Geographic Channel” (as he expressed it in a later interview), and the channel wants to end the presentation with a bang. They discuss dropping a piano, a bowling ball, and a javelin simultaneously from the top of the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena to see which hits the ground first, repeating a stunt done on the None of the Above science program. (Later, the idea was dropped because the hotel balked.)
Owens has been in his office since 8 am and won’t leave until 8 pm. Though his office is in DC, long distance management is second nature to him. At given times in 2013 he was in Alaska, Cuba, Nepal, South Africa, the Rockies, and Vermont. Visits to the United Kingdom are frequent to touch base with the network’s London office and to do business with the BBC, National Geographic’s frequent partner. Flying to Los Angeles is like going to Georgetown.
Owens, Billy Bush, and Janet Han Vissering wait for rhinos at Chitwan National Park in Nepal
Owens is brought up-to-date on work in progress during the weekly production review meeting in the division’s conference room, called The Fishbowl. It ought to be called the Trophy Room: Dozens of statuettes and other awards garnered by the channel are arrayed on a shelf.
Gathered around the long table is an assortment of producers, writers, and programmers. The lowkey meeting moves at a brisk pace, with Owens quietly delivering the last word; 30 shows are discussed in less than 90 minutes, including Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers and Brain Games, a new series that puts the brain through a series of experiments and optical illusions. Later, Owens says there is coordination among National Geographic magazine, the television channel, and the organization’s other creative areas. “We have the same brand,” he says, pointing to a 2012 TV special on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic—a joint effort with the magazine and other media. The network is also joining forces with the magazine to produce “a huge initiative” on food. “The show will be called Hungry and will be about how food changed the way people live,” Owens explains.
Owens leaves for lunch with former US Senator Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. (Owens interned for Dodd in 1988 but opted for a career in entertainment.) As a Connecticut-born law graduate, Owens (now married with two daughters) started as an agent at the William Morris Agency. He then cofounded Reveille, behind such shows as The Biggest Loser, MasterChef, and The Office.
His team discusses a new series, The ’90s
Next up is a screening of a “first cut” of The ’90s, a new eight-part special that has an edgy, neurotic quality, with plenty of Bill Clinton—which Owens likes. But he wants to replace the Britney Spears song in the introduction with music from Nirvana. “Our audience wants a heavier [sound],” he says. In an attempt to build up a more regular following, Owens has shifted to multipart series, specials, and pricey, high-profile movies. As a subtitle to The ’90s, someone proposes “The Last Great Decade?” Owens likes it, but should it have a question mark? After a long discussion, the mark stays.
All this action is punctuated by occasional pauses for Owens to deal with some 100 phone calls. This afternoon, he calls Rob Lowe to congratulate him on his best actor nomination by the Screen Actors Guild for Killing Kennedy. But most calls are to production companies working on network projects.
Owens’s sunny office features souvenirs of his trips across the country and around the globe
“The channel is now fully mine,” says Owens in an interview in his office over sushi, but he also pays tribute to David Lyle, National Geographic Channels’ CEO. “Our goal is to make exciting, riveting programs for new viewers without alienating our core audience,” he adds. Washington is a good place to be in the TV business these days. With Homeland, House of Cards, Scandal, and Veep among the top television shows, “there’s a fascination with Washington” that’s drawing creative people to the nation’s capital.
Owens chairs a “greenlight meeting” with the channel’s senior staff to go over new shows that they may want to buy; 17 people screen video clips and discuss costs, budgets, time slots, and other factors in feeding the elephantine appetite of a television channel. Owens gives the thumbs up or down on each project like a Roman emperor in the arena. The 10th anniversary of Thailand’s tsunami? Americans won’t be interested, he says. But a history of gold “sounds like a special.”
With all decisions made, the Champagne is brought in.
photography by daniel bedell