This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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."
The Hollywood Reporter: Are you surprised by the success and criticism of Honey Boo Boo?
Eileen O'Neill: No and no. The ratings are a little bit unexpected. Alana and her mother just popped in the Toddlers & Tiaras episode, so it wasn't brain surgery to figure out there was something appealing there. In terms of the criticism, that's fully expected because it came out of Toddlers & Tiaras. Everybody is entitled to their opinion.
THR: How do you answer the criticism that this little girl is being exploited for cheap laughs?
O'Neill: See, I don't think we're laughing at them. I think we're leaning in to be surprised and entertained. At the end of it, these people are rich in love, and we find that attractive. And anytime you have kids involved in shows, that question is going to come up, whether it's with Toddlers or [Lifetime's] Dance Moms. We've been doing this for a number of years, and we're consistent with our approach: If the family is uncomfortable in the production of the show or the way the show is presented, we're going to make changes or get out. Why would we want to do anything differently? So we're really proud of the show.
THR: But a lot of people watch Toddlers & Tiaras and Honey Boo Boo with a little bit of horror.
O'Neill: Well, we certainly hear that. And we've all got an opinion. I think to judge is always really tricky. Some things are easy to pick on.
THR: Do you take the snarky reviews that essentially lament that TLC "used to be called The Learning Channel" personally?
O'Neill: No. [Laughter.] If I read everything out there, I would go nuts. And I always know that the audience tells us what they like or don't like. I respect the critics -- and I actually probably read more about what they say about our competitors just to get a little insight.
THR: As a programmer, how do you maintain authenticity?
O'Neill: The nonfiction world is undergoing a bit of an evolution right now as to how heavy the producer's hand is in telling a story. So it's challenging for us. As you look around the marketplace, there are varying degrees of obviousness in unscripted. A large part of the audience isn't as concerned with the scripted part of it. But with the Discovery networks, there is a higher expectation that it's original; it's unique, and it's authentic. So you've got to use your gut. And we do -- everybody gets to see a lot of tape. The believability factor -- the bullshit factor, if you will -- comes from your first gut reaction to the images that you're seeing and knowing the producers and what their standards are. This is what's spectacularly good and bad about this industry; if one idea is working, then you get a bunch of ideas around that area. Look at the whole "stuff" category with American Pickers, Hardcore Pawn and Pawn Stars and all the fishing shows that came after Deadliest Catch. So yeah, sometimes we are not the most creative bunch.
THR: Is it bad for the industry to be so derivative?
O'Neill: Not necessarily. I think we've seen some good shows come in. Look at the broadcast side -- who would have thought another music performance show would be doing as well as The Voice? So I think our audience calls us on it when they're exhausted. And having been in the business long enough, you see things come and go and come back again. But for us, we always look at the fact that the whole world is really our stage, literally and figuratively.
THR: Is there a program on another network you wish was yours?
O'Neill: Yeah, a show like [A&E's] Storage Wars is a workhorse. And in this environment -- where you can get a strong premiere number but we've seen repeats diminish through various things, including the DVR -- that show can repeat well. I think we've got a couple coming along, including Fast N' Loud on Discovery.
THR: History has expanded into scripted programming. Have you talked about doing scripted on Discovery or TLC?
O'Neill: First and foremost, we are the No. 1 nonfiction company in the world, so we're not going to do anything to take away from that. But there's certainly room for different ways of telling a story. There is an opportunity for event drama on Discovery. It's something we've been looking at and developing for well over a year, so it's something that you could see. But we're not making any commitments or announcements yet. TLC is not really in that space.
THR: Big-budget BBC co-productions including Frozen Planet and the upcoming Africa have been an important ratings and branding property for Discovery. How are you evolving that milieu?
O'Neill: We brought on [former BBC natural history unit head] Andrew Jackson [as executive vp production and development, landmark series and specials]. And we've got content that we're looking at that takes four or five years to make that is plotted for 2016, '17 and '18. He'll be looking at natural history [as well as] science and history as categories that we would do landmark events. Those would more than likely take a substantial amount of time to deliver on.
THR: What's your day like? When do you get to the office?
O'Neill: I actually don't drive in now; I have a driver so I can work. My day starts at 7 a.m. when I get in the car, and I'm either talking to London or screening tapes -- because I've been told I can't do that when I'm driving! I get here around 8 a.m. and then go until 7 p.m., then get back in the car and deal with the West Coast phone calls and hopefully do some more screening. The biggest challenge at my job with three networks now is to see the shows and see them in an early stage. So trying to pack that in around a lot of meetings is difficult, and I don't want to take away from the family. So this buys me two hours more in the day that I can get some work done.
THR: Are there pros and cons to being in suburban Washington when so much of the production community is in Los Angeles and New York?
O'Neill: We like to think of it as the nonfiction capital of the world; you have us, PBS and Nat Geo. So we do get a lot of producer traffic here and not as many agents -- which is not necessarily a bad thing. God love 'em! There is a much more limited production community here. But our production community is so global at this point. Without a doubt, New York and L.A. have the greatest intensity of producers, but we've also got them in Nashville and Atlanta and San Francisco. So you've got to be flexible.
THR: Bravo has expanded Real Housewives to multiple countries. Can you do that with some TLC series?
O'Neill: I definitely think there is that opportunity.
THR: But no Toddlers & Tiaras: India?
O'Neill: Nope, not yet.