So when Discovery president Eileen O’Neill appeared Tuesday in downtown Washington before the annual RealScreen Summit reality-TV confab, a certain amount of nerve calming was in order.
In December, Silver Spring-based Discovery network joined the march of non-fiction cablers heading into the scripted programming biz; that said, it has not strayed far from home, ordering its first miniseries about prospecting for gold — a narrative O’Neill had said Discovery “created and owns” with several of its hit reality series, including “Gold Rush.”
“It won't take over our schedule,” O’Neill reassured attendees, of “Klondike,” based on Charlotte Gray’s novel “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike.” The miniseries follows six strangers and their fight for survival and wealth in a small, frontier town in the remote Klondike in the late 19th century, including a young Jack London.
“Our priority is great nonfiction,” she told attendees at RealScreen — a kind of Reality-TV Speed Dating, in which aspiring documentary and reality-TV program makers pay to rub shoulders with program-buying execs from various networks.
Still, O'Neill, who also runs TLC and Discovery Fit & Health, said she welcomes scripted pitches — just not long ones. More of a “Planet Earth” length, she said.
Competitor History channel recently scored huge ratings (and a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, too) with its “Hatfield & McCoy” miniseries. History's first scripted TV show, “Vikings,” debuts in March. It’s all too depressing for RealScreen attendees.
O’Neill came to RealScreen Summit be interviewed on stage by CAA agent Alan Braun. Before the grilling began, they traded buttons. O’Neill had one that said “I Love Agents,” while Braun’s professed his love for cable TV execs.
Braun began to lob softball questions at O’Neill, while the crowd didn’t hold its breath.
* What show did O’Neill love that didn’t work? ”BBQ Pitmasters,” which has found a new home on Discovery Networks’ Destination America (formerly Planet Green channel).
* What worries her about her channels at 3 a.m.? “Ratings,” she admitted.
When not swatting away the softballs, O'Neill played clips that showed off her assets — most notably, a montage of TLC show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” shout-outs from the likes of NBC’s Tina Fey comedy ”30 Rock,” and Barbara Walters’ “10 Most Fascinating People” special.
O'Neill boasted about her staff's ability to pinpoint Alana Thompson (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) in an episode of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” and develop a spin-off around her. It’s tougher than it looks, O’Neill insisted.
Someone in the audience asked O’Neill, who oversees a network that offers us “Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs.,” “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” and both “Strange Sex” and “My Strange Addiction,” whether she worries about losing viewers who feel Honey Boo Boo’s show is in bad taste.
O'Neill said the entertainment industry sometimes takes things too seriously.
“For Barbara [Walters] to have an attitude, yet put [Boo Boo] on the show, sends mixed messages,” O’Neill said, in reference to Babs having rolled her eyes when she announced Ms. Boo Boo was one of Babs’ most fascinating people of 2012.
“Not all programming is for everyone,” O’Neill explained earnestly.
O'Neill also showed a clip of Discovery’s “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers,” a highfalutin four-part special airing this spring on Discovery, in which 19 White House chiefs of staff are interviewed, including Rahm Emanuel talking the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Someone in the audience wanted to know what shows O’Neill thinks could have worked on her networks. She named History’s “Pawn Stars” and A&E’s “Storage Wars.” O’Neill also admitted to being baffled by the success of History’s “American Pickers.” (But, she said, “God bless History channel for figuring that out.”)
“Would you ever buy shows in a genre just to kill a genre on another network?” Braun jumped in.
“There are many motivations for picking up a show,” O’Neill deadpanned.