Last year was ripe for restructuring at Discovery Communications, with Eileen O’Neill, formerly the president and GM of TLC, named group president of Discovery Channel and TLC in January.
At the time, Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav made sure to mention O’Neill’s “big, bold swings at TLC,” which, he added, “have transformed the network and driven it into the top 10 for women with an incredible 31 series averaging more than one million viewers in 2010.
“We’re so proud and privileged to have Eileen at this company and I am confident her leadership will drive our biggest engines – Discovery Channel and TLC – to even greater success,” he summed up. In August, O’Neill was given oversight of another Discovery Communications net, Discovery Fit & Health.
In the past year under O’Neill’s watch, Discovery Channel launched a live event, American Chopper Live: The Build-Off, which revved up big ratings and took its night as the number one primetime program among males 25-54, 18-49 and 18-34. The special also proved to be a strong lead-in for the debut of Moonshiners, which pulled in 2.83 million total viewers for its premiere.
The ambitious, multi-year ‘Curiosity’ strand also kicked off this year, and O’Neill also points to American Guns as another new entry that did well for Discovery. “It was exciting growing shows like MythBusters and Sons of Guns, [both] big successes for the year,” she says, while also pointing to the four Emmys won by one of the network’s biggest hits of recent years, Deadliest Catch. Modestly, she points out that she takes no claim for the Emmys, but makes sure to say that “we’re proud of the team.”
With TLC, O’Neill cites the momentum of Sister Wives’ third season – “its biggest season ever,” she points out – and the launching of Long Island Medium, Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids and “the rather buzzy” All-American Muslim as highlights.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment of 2011?
I think growing Discovery’s ratings and doing that through restructuring the team and maintaining TLC’s momentum. [It's] definitely juggling a lot of balls.
What were the biggest challenges of the past year?
For me, getting to know Discovery, having been here for 20 years and [having] not worked on that brand in 19 [of those years]. It was getting used to male programming when I’d been in the very female-skewing TLC world for a number of years.
We’ve grown some of our LA presence and structure, which is helpful and will prove even more helpful as time goes forward.
Getting to know another 80-plus team is probably my biggest challenge this year, but I also took on Discovery Fit & Health in August.
How will the programming evolve over the course of the next year on the networks?
Discovery is going to build on its brand equity. You’re going to see even more big shows in the science and history categories, as well as the character-based shows. I think really taking advantage of our ‘Curiosity’ brand is going to be a big part of who we are next year.  is going to be kicked off very strongly by Frozen Planet, which launches in March.
TLC has had a unique opportunity to build on some of the freshman series from this year, like Long Island Medium. I think there’s a lot of growth ahead for all three networks, at different stages. We’ve got the big brand of Discovery, which is having its biggest fourth quarter ever, from the looks of it. TLC is maintaining a lot of momentum and Fit & Health is about to take off. 2012 should be a very exciting year for us.