Banner first year at helm of TLC

“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 hit reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

“Heaven” is TLC’s spectacular growth over the last 12 months, with its prime-time audience leaping 43% and now pulling in an average of more than 1 million viewers every night. And “hell” is that the show driving much of that growth has become a lightning rod for critics who say that TLC is profiting from a family’s misery and obsession for publicity.

The controversy over the role that the show may have played in the deterioration of the Gosselins’ marriage and how its demise will affect their children could undercut TLC’s brand and turn away advertisers.

Launched in 1980 as the Learning Channel and known for educational programs, the channel, like many other cable networks, has gradually shifted away from its original mission and has embraced entertainment to boost ratings. In TLC’s case, that now means a heavy emphasis on reality fare, a format that has mushroomed in recent years on cable and broadcast TV.

“There is a very fine line between guarding your brand and getting a ratings point,” said Brent Poer, senior vice president at MediaVest USA, which buys commercials for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.


So far, TLC appears to be doing a good job of walking that line. “The channel is as hot as it could be,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investments at Carat, which buys ad time for companies including Pfizer Inc. and Papa John’s International Inc. Most advertisers, Donchin said, want their commercials on “Jon & Kate,” and he credits the network with “focusing on the family and not exploiting the controversy.”

On Monday, “Jon and Kate Plus 8" returns with new episodes after a six-week break. The show, which follows the lives of the small-town central Pennsylvania family of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, has been on for a little more than two years.

But it caught fire only last spring when cracks in the couple’s marriage began to appear. The reality program went from timid to tabloid as the Gosselins’ woes played out on the small screen -- as well as in every gossip magazine at the supermarket checkout line. The media scrutiny became so severe that TLC decided last month to put the show on production hiatus while the couple began divorce proceedings.

For TLC, the huge success of “Jon & Kate” is a mixed blessing. The show set a ratings record for the network in late June when its new episode drew 10.6 million viewers. Such success not only boosted other programs on the channel, but also thrust TLC into the cultural zeitgeist, something the network’s previous hits, such as home makeover show “Trading Spaces,” failed to achieve.

The guarded O’Neill, who was instrumental in developing “Jon & Kate” when it initially premiered on sister network Discovery Health Channel, acknowledges that chronicling 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 “has delivered for the family things that were important to them . . . opportunities for them and the kids.”

It also has delivered things that are important for TLC, the Discovery Communications Inc.-owned cable network

Before O’Neill took over as president and general manager, the knock on TLC was that it had lost its way creatively and financially. While O’Neill won’t talk money, media consulting firm SNL Kagan estimates that 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, TLC currently gets 16 cents per subscriber. That’s less than half of what cable networks such as USA and FX command and below the industry average for a network of its size.

But the flip side to TLC’s newfound success is the increased pressure on O’Neill to capture lightning twice.

“Now we have to grow over ourselves; that’s the hard part,” she said.

More reality programs figure prominently in that growth plan. O’Neill has revived veteran shows that appeared to be on the way out, including “LA Ink,” about a Hollywood tattoo parlor, and “American Chopper,” which follows an Orange County family that builds custom motorcycles.

O’Neill has also successfully launched shows including “Cake Boss,” which features Hoboken, N.J., baker Buddy Valastro and his family. The show has averaged more than 2 million viewers and just been renewed for a second season. Gaining traction for new shows is key, because sooner or later the “Jon & Kate” juggernaut will fade.

“You need to show that you’ve got heat and are back on the cultural bubble, and they have done that,” said Poer of MediaVest USA.

Fortunately for O’Neill, Valastro’s biggest personal problem appears to be his nagging mom, Mary, and they can’t get divorced. So no one should be accusing O’Neill of helping to break up that family.