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O’Neill: Seeks strong personalities to attract auds

Women's Impact Report 2011: Eileen O'Neill

Although Eileen O’Neill put a lot of series with controversial characters on the air during her three-year tenure at TLC — “Kate Plus 8,” “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” “Sister Wives” — the 21-year Discovery veteran says she looks at every show with an eye toward breaking through the clutter.

“We seek out strong personalities, whether they’re unbelievably likable like a ‘Cake Boss’ or someone that’s more divisive,” says O’Neill, who was promoted to group president of Discovery and TLC in January. “It’s that middle of the road that’s going to kill you every single time.”

With her promotion, O’Neill also presides over what has become something of a tradition in cable: Discovery’s 24-year-old Shark Week, which was particularly strong in female demos this year and had much higher celebrity quotient with Andy Samberg and Craig Ferguson hosting shows.

While two quick-turnaround specials this year — “Killing Bin Laden” and an April show about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami — demonstrated Discovery’s ability to react to news, TLC lost “Kate Plus 8,” “L.A. Ink” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which weren’t renewed for a second season.

At the end of the day, we have to be understanding as to when stories come to an end,” O’Neill says, pointing out that she’s very focused on developing for the fourth quarter of this year and first quarter of 2012.

Upcoming series on TLC will include “All-American Muslim,” which follows five Muslim-American families living in Michigan, as well as an American version of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” in the spring. Discovery recently launched “Carfellas,” which follows a used-car dealership in Long Island, and will premiere the miniseries “Weed Wars,” about a medical-marijuana clinic, in November.

O’Neill says that even though the nonfiction space is becoming increasingly crowded, the competition keeps her on her toes.

“It’s a whole big world out there and we sometimes feel like we can’t be surprised anymore, but I swear it happens daily,” she says. “Whether we think we want to do anything with it is another question.”

SNAPSHOTTitle: Group president, Discovery and TLC Networks
Role model: Former Celtics forward Larry Bird. “He achieved more than anyone expected due to his relentless work ethic. Go Celtics!”
Career mantra: “My dad gave me a card that said it all: ‘Cover yours; kick theirs.’ “
Leisure pursuits: “Free time?”
Philanthropic passions: Horse rescue and donating to her alma mater, Bowling Green State University

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