Even the furniture in the waiting area — cupcake-shaped chairs tucked into a cake stand table — is a nod to Washington’s sibling bakers and Jersey’s pastry chieftain whose antics have gained a following for “D.C. Cupcakes” and “Cake Boss,” respectively.
Every colorful quirk of the decor reflects the network’s dedicated exploration of eccentricity. TLC revels in documenting everyday people living life, no matter how bizarre or mundane.
It’s a Wednesday morning in Silver Spring, and Eileen O’Neill, president of TLC and Discovery networks, is ready to talk about vision. She makes her way into the conference room, where general manager Amy Winter is already seated.
Winter is the young, urbane optimist, O’Neill the thoughtful pragmatist. They epitomize TLC’s target audience: women intrigued by the world around them.
“Whether it’s something as controversial as polygamy or as amenable as a baker’s shop, the aim is for the audience to come away with something of value and interest,” O’Neill said when asked about TLC’s programming goals.
What separates TLC from other networks, Winter chimes in, is its “compelling characters” who “tell their stories in a very openhearted way.” Audiences tune in for the authenticity of those stories, for the reality.
Reality TV is at the heart of TLC’s formula, as it is with much of cable television’s, but a sea change may be occurring: Competing networks such as Bravo and History are turning to scripted programming to appeal to an increasingly fragmented audience and to attract ad dollars.
Broadcast networks have long aired original scripted series, while cable channels were subsisting off reruns, documentaries and old movies. Many cable execs found the cost of producing scripted shows prohibitive, yet a few gave it a shot, with mixed results.
The popularity of cheaply produced reality shows gave cable channels little reason to diversify their lineup. But the enduring success of scripted shows such as “Mad Men” on AMC is encouraging more networks to venture into the format.
Wading into scripted programming might be the next logical step in TLC’s evolution.
TLC launched in 1980 as The Learning Channel. One of its early successes was the 1997 docu-reality series “Trauma: Life in the E.R.,” which followed doctors and nurses in emergency rooms across the country. In its seven seasons, it was nominated for four Emmys.
“It became a catalyst for a fair amount of demographic change,” said John Ford, TLC’s first head of programming. “It skewed female, which really caught us by surprise. We weren’t as sophisticated in understanding the gender dynamics back then but learned a lot about our audiences.”