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It is an unseasonably warm evening in early March, and the ice sculptures in front of the soaring glass entrance of Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall are beginning to thaw. On this day — Discovery’s premiere event for Frozen Planet — the 70-degree temperatures stand as an ironic counterpoint to the network’s latest
epic co-production with the BBC.
The previously angular beaks of a clutch of Emperor penguins carved out of 6,000 pounds of ice have melted into short rounded snouts. And another 6,000-pound sculpture — an ice floe wall — is dangerously close to resembling a giant Slurpee. It is more than an hour before guests arrive, and David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, emerges from the hall to survey the 12,000 pounds of mushy ice. “We’ve gotta get people here before the sculptures melt!”
Inside, Eileen O’Neill, group president of Discovery and TLC Networks, does not betray a hint of anxiety — about the melting ice sculptures or her ambassador duties, although she freely admits to being uncomfortable in the media glare. Dressed in a navy blue Brooks Brothers skirt suit and pearls, she calmly chats with Discovery founder and chairman John S. Hendricks and Frozen Planet executive producer Alastair Fothergill. Asked what she likes about such events, she allows “not much,” except that it is an opportunity to honor the BBC crew who spent nearly four years braving inhuman conditions (200 mph winds, temperatures that dipped to -58 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Alastair is out there in the worst conditions for months,” she says. “And this is a chance for our filmmakers to really have the spotlight on them."
If O’Neill prefers to fly under the radar, her accomplishments at Discovery Communications — where she started in 1990 as an unpaid intern while earning a graduate degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State University in Ohio — are headline-worthy. O’Neill took the helm of a moribund TLC in 2008, deftly using the outrageous success of Jon & Kate Plus 8 to launch a slew of brand-defining hits including Cake Boss, Sister Wives and Long Island Medium.
“We were very concerned that we’d be seen as a one-hit wonder,” says O’Neill, 45. Hardly. The second season of Medium pulled in 2.3 million viewers on premiere night, besting AMC’s season-five debut of Mad Men and Lifetime’s Army Wives in head-to-head competition. This year, TLC is a top 10 ad-supported cable network among its target demographics of women 25 to 54 and 18 to 49. Promoted to the newly created role of group president in January 2011, O’Neill oversees Discovery — the company’s flagship network — as well as TLC. She has infused Discovery’s programming with new urgency, commissioning ripped-from-the headlines “instamentaries” on the tsunami in Japan, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and most recently the Concordia cruise ship disaster.
She has freshened returning franchises; a live version of American Chopper last December featured a three-way battle between Senior and Junior Teutul and Jesse James that became the eight year- old series’ second-highest rated episode ever with 4.8 million viewers. The third season of Gold Rush will launch this fall with a live episode. And she has seeded the network with the next generation of brand-defining hits including Moonshiners, American Guns and Bering Sea Gold — which, with 3.7 million viewers tuning in for its January premiere, stands as the biggest series launch in Discovery’s 27-year history. Discovery’s first-quarter ratings were the third-highest ever (behind only fourth quarter 2011 and first quarter 2004).
“She works harder than anyone,” says Zaslav. “We’re on the phone every Saturday, sometimes Sunday. She’s understated, but she’s unbelievably competitive.”
O’Neill’s competitive streak is a product of a childhood in a large Irish Catholic family of five children who moved from Mount Holyoke, N.Y., to Vero Beach, Fla., when O’Neill was in third grade. She excelled in volleyball, softball and especially basketball, and while she grew to become a Dodgers fan (the team’s spring training facility was in Vero Beach until 2008), she has remained loyal to her beloved New England Patriots and Boston Celtics.
“It’s a tough job and she’s tough at her job,” says Craig Piligian, who produces a slew of series for Discovery (Dirty Jobs, American Chopper). “But if she sees something positive, she calls you.”
O’Neill intended to pursue sports writing after earning her B.A., but a dearth of full-time career prospects led her to graduate school, which landed her that internship at Discovery. Twenty-two years later, she has no regrets. Her postgraduate studies “taught me a lot about critical thinking and aspects of our culture that are often overlooked. Oddly enough, it has really worked out.” O’Neill and her partner, a stay-at-home-mom, live in the Maryland suburb of Rocky Gorge, where they’re raising their 11-year-old son, Quinn, and where O’Neill is a 30-minute drive from Discovery’s Silver Spring offices.
If her early education stressed right-brain creativity, O’Neill approaches the creative side of the business as a left-brain tactician.“Conversations with Eileen are
always logical and reasonable,” says Piligian.“But you gotta go in smart. When you hear Eileen is on the phone, she’s not expecting an idiot on the other end.”
She admits to being “a bit of a micromanager.” “I pay attention to details. I’m a sponge for information. You have to be to be a general manager,” she says.
It is 6 p.m., an hour before the Frozen Planet screening, and Pete and Penny, two 3-year-old Magellanic penguins on loan from SeaWorld, are waiting in a basement room before they waddle down the blue carpet. They are curiously inspecting visitors when Pete relieves himself on the floor. A few moments later, O’Neill walks the carpet as Pete and Penny wander toward the flash bulbs behind the media rope line. O’Neill kneels to coax her small stars back onto the carpet. “They’re total pros,” she muses, and adds, “other than a poop incident.”
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