Shannon O'Neill knows most of the nooks and crannies of the Travel Channel, where he has worked as a senior-level exec since 2011. Since February, though, the place has looked a little different to him—that’s when he started running the Scripps network as its president.
“None of it is really new,” he said. “My positions leading up to this gave me insights into how the various departments work. But the difference is, now I have to make decisions and be a leader. It is up to me.”
While O’Neill’s background isn’t a typical showbiz one, much of it prepared him to step into the role of ultimate decision-maker. After graduating from the University of Delaware (where he also played for the school’s Division I baseball team), he set off on a finance trajectory and settled in at the august firm of Ernst & Young. Amid the original dotcom fever, he put together a startup—“ a qualitative version of Bloomberg’s terminals” that aggregated financial reporting documents—only to see it come up just short of IPO glory in 2002 in an economy battered by Sept. 11.
That intensely humbling experience—“ as much stress as I have ever been under,” O’Neill recalls—would spark a career reassessment that led to his climb up the cable TV ladder. Assured that the defunct venture’s payroll had been met and that he had plenty of company in the near-miss entrepreneur category, he nevertheless took a lot of time pondering his next move, hesitant about jumping too quickly. “A really smart person gave me great advice,” he said. “And that was: instead of going after a specific job, they told me to think about two or three companies I really admired and figure out how to get hired there.”
As a Philadelphia native, one company O’Neill knew well and regarded highly was Comcast. He soon found a receptive place for his financial skills as the cable giant set about integrating AT&T Broadband cable systems after the companies’ $72 billion merger.
After a couple of years, “I assumed I’d have some sort of operations role as I went forward, but then Amy Banse [who now heads Comcast Ventures] brought me over to the programming side, and that opened up so much for me,” O’Neill said. With stakes in properties at the time including OLN, G4, E!, Style and regional sports networks, Comcast was investing heavily in content. O’Neill segued to roles overseeing FEARNet, a joint venture with Lionsgate and Sony, and eventually became digital GM and CFO of the Golf Channel.
In working on various content teams, O’Neill began reporting to Jeff Shell, who is now chairman of the Universal Film Group. “He is a disruptive force in a good way,” O’Neill said. “I try to emulate a lot of the different ways he is able to motivate people. He wants to be able to take a step back and observe the bigger picture but also to apply those observations practically.”
Shell recalled one practical notion by O’Neill that proved transformative for the previously money-losing Golf Channel website: tee times. As the Internet matured, free-spending and free-swinging golfers also clicked freely on a fragmented group of websites that facilitated tee times at local courses. “He had the idea to transform the Golf Channel’s website into a destination for golfers to book travel, sell equipment and book people’s tee times,” Shell said via email. “He acquired several tee time companies and consolidated them under the GolfNow brand. It’s now one of NBCUniversal’s fastest-growing and most profitable businesses.”
Shahid Khan, a veteran media consultant who helped O’Neill with the launch of GolfNow and FEARNet, says O’Neill has “the charismatic personality and leadership skills to galvanize people around his vision and lead his teams to execute on it.”
That he now gets to carry out these plans within a lifestyle-oriented media company like Scripps is extra-satisfying for O’Neill. Two years ago, he and his wife Dawn leveraged insights from his day job to take the ultimate Italy trip through Tuscany. “For us, it’s all about traveling like a local and this notion of authentic travel,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier than looking around a restaurant and seeing nothing but locals.”
The trip went well beyond the food—in an epic-length dinner at a chef’s home in Florence, the couple talked art, politics, music and history, touring the surrounding foothills with an archaeologist.
O’Neill currently plots Travel’s course (and, hopefully, ratings resurgence) between long morning runs (“when I do my best thinking”) and binge sessions with House of Cards or Game of Thrones. O’Neill is aware of the harmonic work-play convergence that has taken shape just a decade after he took stock of his path. “I love TV and I love travel,” he says, “and while there are a lot of places to work, this job allows me to combine my passions like this.”