Discovery vet Eileen O'Neill named new g.m.

Angela Shapiro-Mathes is out at TLC, just over a year after she joined the Discovery-owned lifestyle cabler.

Shapiro-Mathes has been replaced as g.m. by 17-year Discovery vet Eileen O’Neill, who most recently launched Discovery’s Planet Green channel. She previously oversaw TLC during an interim period in 2007 before Shapiro-Mathes took over that July.

As part of the shuffle, oversight of TLC has once again shifted back to Discovery’s Silver Spring, Md., home base, where O’Neill is stationed. Discovery emerging networks topper Clark Bunting will oversee Planet Green until a successor is found.

Shapiro-Mathes’ exit throws into question the entire fate of TLC, which moved to Los Angeles from Maryland last year in a much-ballyhooed restructure. But ratings at the channel have failed to pick up, and Discovery is now prepping another channel geared toward a similar audience, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN.

In an email to staffers, Discovery Communications prexy-CEO David Zaslav said returning TLC into the top 10 cable rankings “is priority No. 1,” and that the channel’s importance to Discovery’s “portfolio and future success is critical.”

“As a flexible company with a culture of accountability, we have to acknowledge when things do not go as planned,” Zaslav said. “Unfortunately, the recent strategy for TLC did not meet our ratings or operational goals. I am committed to improving upon these processes and lessons learned and restoring TLC to its full creative and business potential.”

Insiders said Shapiro-Mathes wasn’t ultimately the right fit for the channel and at the same time clashed with producers and TLC staffers.

Shapiro-Mathes set out to remake TLC into more of a general entertainment outlet, but the results were disappointing.

“She was trying to do Bravo, and TLC is a much more mainstream demographic,” one insider said.

In the second quarter of 2008, TLC was down 10% among total viewers (ranking 24th among all ad-supported cablers) and down 15% with adults 25-54.

TLC hit the ratings bonanza earlier this decade thanks to smashes like “Trading Spaces.” But as the home makeover genre became oversaturated, the cabler’s numbers declined. TLC had been back on a ratings upswing, however, until this year.

Still, Zaslav also gave Shapiro-Mathes credit for increasing TLC’s development presence in L.A., as well as giving network staple “Trading Spaces” a boost by bringing back former host Paige Davis. Shapiro-Mathes also signed deals with Kelly Ripa and Real Simple mag and brought “Miss America” to the network.

It’s looking less likely that the channel’s project with Jennifer Lopez will be moving forward, however.

By bringing in O’Neill, Discovery hopes to send a sign to program suppliers and the industry that the channel is returning to its roots. Exec’s credits include developing “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” now TLC’s top-rated series.

O’Neill’s appointment is also seen as a reward for guiding the launch of Planet Green, which bowed earlier this year to heavy fanfare.

“She has earned the trust and admiration of countless network staff, colleagues and external producers and is the perfect executive to lead TLC,” Zaslav told employees.

According to Zaslav, TLC is doing well on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays and must focus on coming up with new programs for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“A cornerstone of the strategy will be storytelling around strong characters in the spirit of ‘Little People, Big World,’ and of uplifting personal improvement as seen each week in ‘What Not to Wear,’” he wrote in his memo. “I am confident Eileen understands TLC’s core audience.”

TLC will keep its L.A. office open, although Zaslav and O’Neill will be examining the channel’s structure in the next few months.

Among O’Neill’s first priorities: installing a development topper in Los Angeles. TLC senior veep of programming Brant Pinvidic, one of Shapiro-Mathes’ early hires, didn’t last long at the cabler; he quietly left earlier this year.

As for Shapiro-Mathes, rumors of the exec’s departure had been swirling for months, but the chatter had rown louder over the past few days. Word had leaked enough that Discovery was forced to accelerate the restructure, informing Shapiro-Mathes and her team on Friday morning.

Shapiro-Mathes joined TLC from Fox TV Studios, which she headed; before that, she was president of ABC Family. Exec’s credits also include serving in dual roles at Disney as both president of Buena Vista Prods. (which she took on in 2000) and head of ABC daytime (a post to which she was named in 1998).

Before her move into television, Shapiro-Mathes co-founded Soap Opera Digest and launched Soap Opera Update magazine.

Besides launching Planet Green in less than 12 months and her brief stint overseeing TLC, O’Neill’s 17-year experience with the company also includes running Discovery Health Channel.

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