"Heaven and hell" is how Eileen O'Neill describes her first year at the helm of TLC, the cable network that is home to the controversial reality hit "Jon & Kate Plus 8."
O'Neill, 42, took over as president and general manager of TLC last July after the channel's ratings had dropped by 30% under predecessor Angela Shaprio-Mathis. Now she's wrapping up a record month. The channel averaged more than a million viewers in prime time, a 43% gain from the same month a year ago, including a 43% jump in female viewers ages 18 to 49, one of its target demos. The improvements are even more striking given that there were no new episodes of "Jon & Kate" during that period.
So that's heaven, and now here comes hell.
Next week, "Jon & Kate" returns. The show, which follows the life of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight kids, went from timid to tabloid. The couple's very public marital woes have played out on the small screen and in every gossip rag, and earlier this summer TLC put the show on hiatus after the spouses split.
Although all of this has been great for business -- the audience for the show has skyrocketed with the last episode, which ran in June and drew a record 10.6 million viewers -- it also has led to criticism that the network is exploiting the couple's problems for commercial gain.
The guarded O'Neill, who was instrumental in the development of "Jon & Kate" when it initially premiered on Discovery Health Channel, acknowledges that documenting the rocky road that the Gosselins are traveling has been "tough to navigate."
"Their status as a couple has obviously been disappointing; we can't change anything about people's lives," she said, adding that the show had "delivered for the family things that were important to them ... opportunities for them and the kids."
It also has delivered things that were important for Discovery Communications-owned TLC. Before O'Neill took over, the knock on TLC was it had lost its way creatively and financially. Though she won't talk money, industry consulting firm SNL Kagan said TLC's ad revenue tumbled 5% to $270.5 million in 2008, a figure the channel should easily beat this year, according to people familiar with the situation. TLC also is now positioned to negotiate better distribution fees from cable and satellite operators. According to SNL Kagan, the channel currently gets 16 cents per subscriber. That is less than half of what cable networks such as USA and FX command and below the industry average for a network of its size.
Although no network would turn down the ratings and revenue that "Jon & Kate" have brought to TLC, the flip side is that the pressure increases on O'Neill to capture lightning twice.
"Now we have to grow over ourselves," O'Neill says. "That's the hard part."
She's off to a good start. TLC's new show "Cake Boss," about Hoboken, N.J., baker Buddy Valastro and his family, has averaged more than 2 million viewers and has just been renewed for a second season. Getting some traction on new shows is key because sooner or later the "Jon & Kate" juggernaut will fade.
Fortunately for O'Neill, Valastro's biggest personal problem appears to be his nagging mom, Mary, and they can't get divorced.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: From left, TLC President Eileen O'Neill with "Cake Boss' " Buddy Valastro and Jon and Kate Gosselin at a presentation to advertisers earlier this year. Credit: Amy Sussam/Discovery Communications