Seventeen years passed from the time Eileen O’Neill was an intern at Discovery Communications to her latest post as president and general manager for Discovery Home. One core belief drove her personal career and Discovery’s success: “We get people excited about science, nature and documentaries,” she says.
O’Neill’s ability to rally an audience will be tested early next year when she relaunches Discovery Home as the environmentally-focused Planet Green Channel. Discovery Home, which reaches 50 million subscribers, has had some success with lifestyle programming, but has faced stiff competition from the well-established Scripps Networks, namely HGTV and Food Network.
The relaunch to Planet Green, O’Neill explains, is intended to both differentiate the channel and capitalize on growing interest in environmentalism, organic lifestyles and conservation. “We call it lifestyle, only greener,” she says. “We are taking a terrific platform and genre and bringing a category that we’ve realized is vitally important to our world today.”
As one of Discovery’s original digital networks, Discovery Home has often relied on repeat programming from other sister networks. More recently, Discovery has increased original production for Home and other diginets, such as Discovery Health and The Science Channel.
Going forward, O’Neill says the Planet Green schedule will feature mostly originals and the company has committed $50 million for programming to run on the channel and its sister nets. “This is a unique space and a new frontier, so there are not a lot of acquisitions to be had,” says O’Neill. “We will define green media.”
One of the network’s first shows will be Eco-Town, a reality show executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio where local officials attempt to build an environmentally-friendly town in Kansas, aptly named Greenburg. Other shows will focus on real estate, design and science. Where appropriate, O’Neill say s Planet Green will still repeat shows from sister channels, including Discovery Science’s Eco-Tech.
In many ways, Planet Green’s eclectic mix of programming will reflect O’Neill’s own diverse background. The current environmental movement could be just the type of social phenomenon that she studied as a graduate student in pop culture at Bowling Green State University, where she earned a master’s degree. Pop culture is the study of “what is important to people,” O’Neill explains. “That could be ancient humor in Egypt to American folklore to Madonna bracelets in the 1980s.”
INTO THE MATERIAL WORLD
She says she opted to pursue the unusual degree because she was fascinated with media’s role in society. To satisfy an internship requirement, in 1990, O’Neill applied to be an intern at fledgling Discovery Communications, which at the time, consisted of just the Discovery Channel. Her first assignment was to build a tape library to track all of the shows, beginning with Discovery’s first program, a special called Iceberg Alley.
As she sifted through old programs, O’Neill became more entranced with television and, after graduating, took a job in network operations, where she learned the technical and production aspects of the business. She says she was most fascinated by programming. “I’ve always been interested in content decision-making,” O’Neill says. She often lobbed suggestions to Discovery executives. The first idea that ever made it on air was a three-hour special on elephants tied to national elections called GOP: Grand Old Packaderms, a play on the nickname for the Republican party.
O’Neill shifted to programming full-time when Discovery acquired the Travel Channel and veteran Discovery executive Clark Bunting, now head of Discovery’s U.S. production, tapped her to be its director of scheduling. She then moved on to Discovery Health as its head of programming, where her notable series included birthing reality series Birth Day Live and weight loss series National Body Challenge. Health programming, she says, is “a humbling and challenging experience because you are trying to bring important messages and stories to life in a way people will watch.”
Another claim to fame is discovering the Duggar family, which recently had their 17th child. O’Neill first read about the family in a parenting magazine after the birth of her son, now 6½ years old, and introduced the family to a production company. Discovery Health featured the family in several TV specials.
In 2003, O’Neill’s programming successes earned her a promotion to general manager for Discovery Health and fitness channel FitTV. Last spring, she took on a dizzying array of assignments overseeing Discovery Health, Planet Green and, briefly, TLC, which was between general managers.
Obviously, she can deal with it. Says Bunting, who gave her a big opportunity, “She truly can tackle any challenge, from creating a schedule to identifying talent to building a network as she’s doing now.”
As she builds Planet Green, O’Neill says she will draw on all of those experiences. This time, she’ll have to meld science, pop culture and lifestyle into a cohesive channel and plans also call for a robust Web site and mobile platforms. “Our challenge is to make Planet Green really engaging on multiple platforms,” says O’Neill. In a play on her new turf, she adds, “We think this is a sustainable category and one that is vitally important.”