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World of Discovery: TLC’s O’Neill Is 'Homegrown Talent’

Eileen O’Neill has spent her entire career at Discovery Communications, but no one can say it hasn’t been diverse. O’Neill, now president and general manager of TLC, started at Discovery as an unpaid intern during graduate school.

During her tenure, O’Neill has worked in operations, business affairs, scheduling, production management and programming. She made several horizontal and vertical moves throughout her career and has run a number of Discovery’s brands.

“Discovery’s management has always been supportive of me and my career,” she said. “I have made a number of moves that have helped me become a better executive. Some of the moves I asked for and others they initiated. But happily, they’ve all worked out well for everyone.”

Said Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav: “Eileen O’Neill is a proven cable programmer, who leads by example and is always ready to meet any challenge. Eileen has demonstrated an exceptional ability to understand what viewers want. She is a true emerging star in the cable industry, and we are proud to be able to claim her as a homegrown Discovery Communications talent.”

O’Neill oversaw the strategic development of Planet Green. She is credited with launching the network from the ground up in less than 12 months, and with more than 250 hours of original programming.

She drew a diverse group of celebrities and personalities including Tom Bergeron, Maria Menounos, Tom Brokaw and Bob Woodruff to share their passion for the planet through series and specials.

O’Neill also served as executive vice president and general manager of Discovery Health Channel. In 2007, she simultaneously ran Discovery Health and TLC on an interim basis during a period of management transition at the latter. “That was very intense, but it was a very good experience because when I came back to TLC, I had a running start,” she said.

O’Neill reluctantly gave up the helm of Planet Green but she is thrilled with her role as president and general manager of TLC, a brand she is planning to grow significantly.

“It was hard giving up Planet Green. It was my baby,” she said. “It all happened so quickly. But I am proud of what we were able to create there and I think the opportunities for TLC are tremendous.”

Despite her success climbing Discovery’s corporate ladder, O’Neill hasn’t taken advantage of many of the company’s — or the industry’s — formal leadership or mentoring programs designed to help advance women in the workplace. Still, she said she has had plenty of support in carving out her career.

“I’ve just been too busy [to participate in programs],” said O’Neill, who was named a 2008 Woman To Watch by Women in Cable Telecommunications (alongside fellow 2009 Wonder Woman Vicki Lins, of Canoe Ventures). “I haven’t had a steady position at Discovery long enough to really take advantage of programs like [WICT’s] Betsy Magness Institute. I am hoping that my tenure at TLC enables me to participate in that program.”

O’Neill said she has benefited from informal mentoring throughout her career and has closely watched her co-workers and bosses for ways to improve her leadership acumen.

Indeed, Discovery’s open-door policies and camaraderie means O’Neill has most likely benefited from the experience and others have benefited from hers as well, even if they don’t recognize it right away, said Discovery executive vice president of human resources Adria Alpert-Romm.

O’Neill started at Discovery while earning her graduate degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. After successfully developing a programming library that earned the respect of her bosses, she was hired by Discovery’s operations department. It’s been a roller-coaster ride ever since.

While under her watch, Discovery Health earned record ratings in all dayparts, including its strongest delivery ever during August 2005. Shows developed under her leadership include Mystery Diagnosis, Dr. G. Medical Examiner and Jon & Kate Plus 8.

O’Neill’s experience at Discovery Health gave her an appreciation for the medical community and the work they do every day. “I would sit at my desk sometimes and just marvel at what they could do and the lives they saved every day,” she said. At the same time, programming Planet Green was a joy because the environment is an issue O’Neill has long cared about.

O’Neill had earlier served as Discovery’s director of business affairs, responsible for contract negotiations concerning co-productions, commissioned programming and original work for Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet.

“Discovery took a leap of faith when they put me in scheduling, which is quite complex,” O’Neill said. “And that experience has helped mold me and prepare me for the role I have today.”

[Eileen O’Neill was originally profiled for Multichannel News ’s Nov. 17, 2008, special report on the WICT Accolades honorees. This is an edited version of that profile.]