Juggling her cable nets' split personalities, Eileen O'Neill manages "MythBusters," "Honey Boo Boo" and lots of controversy.
On a warm September afternoon, Eileen O'Neill walks through Discovery's campus in Silver Spring, Md., a state-of-the-art green building where the halls are decorated with floor-to-ceiling banners of the company's breakout stars including Todd Hoffman (Gold Rush) and Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage (MythBusters). There is a poster featuring Man vs. Wild star Bear Grylls, who was booted from the network this year after the British adventurer balked at participating in a planned spinoff series. Asked if the poster would soon come down, O'Neill offers, "I smile and wink at him every time I walk by." Before she added Discovery and Discovery Fit & Health to her portfolio in January 2011, O'Neill, 46, deftly steered TLC from a dry, educational channel to a top 10 cable network among women, the tabloid-friendly Jon & Kate Plus 8 her not-so-secret weapon. These days, that channel is the target of critical backlash over Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, a 7-year-old beauty queen, and her overweight, undereducated, rural Georgia-dwelling family featured on this year's lightning-rod reality entry Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. A spinoff of TLC's child beauty pageant series Toddlers & Tiaras, Honey Boo Boo has been decried as exploitative and a stereotypical portrayal of Southerners as rednecks. But if the show's ratings are an indication (averaging 2.3 million viewers an episode), it is a guilty pleasure -- even eclipsing all individual network airings of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 29 among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic. (O'Neill might have another controversial hit on her hands; the Sept. 9 premiere of Breaking Amish -- which follows young Amish questioning their faith in New York City -- pulled in 3.1 million viewers, TLC's best series premiere in more than three years.) In a Sept. 6 interview with THR, O'Neill -- a devoted Boston sports fan who is raising a son, Quinn, 11, with her partner, a stay-at-home mom -- says she expected the Honey Boo Boo criticism but reasons TLC's cameras are not creating a world but simply documenting it: "I think viewers are recognizing what makes this family stay together and be happy are not the traditional trappings that we all work very hard for."
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