The National Geographic Society, publisher of the 125-year-old magazine, said Chief Executive Officer John Fahey will retire by April 2014, ending a 15-year tenure that made cable TV the group’s biggest revenue source.
Fahey, 61, will remain chairman, the Washington-based science and education non-profit said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. The board will immediately start a CEO search.
“John Fahey has led this remarkable institution for a decade and a half, and in that time, managed it through an incredible and successful transformation,” the board said in the statement. The society is “well-positioned to fulfill its mission in the rapidly evolving digital age.”
Fahey oversaw the society’s expansion from magazine publisher to cable-television programmer with the National Geographic Channel, a joint venture with News Corp., and to films, with “March of the Penguins,” the 2005 documentary that grossed more than $127 million worldwide.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns about 70 percent of Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild in the U.S., and holds a 52 percent interest in the international TV division, according to the New York-based media company’s most recent annual report.
Fahey will remain involved with fundraising, the society’s educational foundation and with the TV channel joint ventures, according to a memo distributed yesterday to staff.
Fahey said he plans to remain CEO until a successor joins the organization, and will assist with the transition.
“This was a difficult decision for me,” Fahey wrote. “I love this place and this job.”
Stepping aside will give the organization a “fresh perspective” and provide Fahey with an opportunity to “engage in other activities of great interest,” he wrote.
Alan Mairson, a former National Geographic staff writer who writes a blog critical of the society, said the growing reliance on TV under Fahey has undermined the group’s mission of cultural, environmental and historical conservation.
“While I’m hoping for big changes at the society, I’m not betting on them,” Mairson, who worked at National Geographic magazine from 1990 to 2008, said in an e-mail.
Mairson cited Nat Geo programs like “Wicked Tuna,” a reality show about fishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna, which the society says is endangered.
Shows like “Wicked Tuna” help raise public awareness of the bluefin tuna’s plight, according to Terry Garcia, a National Geographic Society executive vice president who is quoted on Nat Geo’s website.
Nat Geo is available in more than 84 million U.S. households, while Nat Geo Wild reaches more than 57 million homes, according to the News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s filing. A figure wasn’t provided for Nat Geo Mundo, a Spanish-language outlet started in July 2011.
The network’s subscriber fees from pay-TV systems rank among the top 40 on cable, according to SNL Kagan estimates. Nat Geo receives 24 cents a month per subscriber, while Nat Geo Wild is paid 12 cents and Nat Geo Mundo gets 20 cents.
News Corp., based in New York, gained 2.3 percent to $31.03 at the close. The stock has climbed 22 percent this year.
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