FishbowlDC Interview With Discovery and TLC’s Group Prez Eileen O’Neill

Today the FishbowlDC Interview steers away from the usual interrogation and takes a sharp turn for shark-infested waters by interviewing the Group President of Discovery and TLC Eileen O’Neill.  As Shark Week on Discovery concludes, we figured this was a good time to catch her. The special week of shark programming gets noticed. Everyone from Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Rob Lowe, Conan O’Brien, to Jimmy Fallon are tweeting about it.

O’Neill describes herself as “homegrown talent,” having started at Discovery Communications as an unpaid intern while earning a graduate degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Today she oversees the strategic direction at TLC and Discovery, and since her appointment to Group President, Discovery Channel has had several new hit series, including “Sons of Guns” and “Flying Wild Alaska.”  At TLC she and her team nurtured the development of “Cake Boss,” “Toddlers & Tiaras,” and possibly our favorite, “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”  Most recently O’Neill oversaw the groundbreaking series’ “Sister Wives,” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”

A note on Palin’s Alaska: She’s coy about the family’s return to the airwaves. Sure it was intended for one season only. But never again? Never is such a long time.

Today is the last day of Shark Week. Why sharks? Through the
chills, thrills and adventures, what’s your message to viewers? Sharks have been front and center in all our lives for decades, whether we’ve liked it or not, thank you very much Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg. Anyone else ever have a haunting fear of what may come up from the swimming pool drain? Sharks are the most intriguing and feared animals on the planet, and sadly, one of the most endangered as well. While I hope we’ve entertained and thrilled our audiences to no end this week, I also hope we’ve pulled back the curtain a bit to show that yes, sharks are indeed exciting, but they’re also awe-inspiring creatures who deserve more respect and protection.

Who’s the biggest shark in your life right now? The DVR

You run Discovery and TLC. That’s a huge undertaking. Since Discovery
is “must see” TV for men and TLC is ratings gold for women, what’s your
biggest challenge? Discovery and TLC are very different networks but both offer compelling content and programming with great characters and real life storytelling.
Our audiences are smart, loyal and growing, so one of my favorite challenges is to find those great characters that people will love….or hate; and those great stories that keep you engaged — across all platforms. We are thrilled to create these shows and to be part of the pop culture zeitgeist.

What D.C. publication do you read most frequently or steadily? When you are screening shows for two networks, not a whole lot of reading goes on — but of course I check out the Washington Post.

Running one network seems rough. But two? That’s a lot of work. What
keeps your life “normal” — how do you stay grounded? There is nothing like Washington traffic to keep you grounded. Also getting to enjoy Washington and the shores of Delaware with my family helps keep me somewhat sane. The ocean and the beach calm me down immediately — not enough to put down the blackberry, but close.

How did you get Sarah Palin to do “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” for TLC? What
was it like to work with them, and are you planning to bring Palin back to
the network? Mark Burnett did all the convincing — since he is such a master at showing beautiful landscapes and telling interesting stories. I never thought I would swoop in from a seaplane to the Palin’s house and sit down to smoked caribou salmon with the Palins. They couldn’t have been more gracious. What you saw on “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” was the real deal – one of the reasons the show delivered historic ratings to TLC. However, it was intended to be a single season only. Since I’ve learned to be careful with how I use the word “never,” let me add, tune in! You never know what you’re going to
see on TLC!