When Discovery purchased TLC in 1991, the network was airing a mix of self-help shows, reaching roughly 15 million households and producing $13 million in revenue.
Figuring out what works
By 2001, Discovery had turned the network into a $367 million operation that reached nearly 80 million homes, according to media research company SNL Kagan.
TLC’s next big hit, “Trading Spaces,” which launched in 2000, lured viewers with the unpredictability of people’s reactions to home makeovers led by their neighbors. The show, averaging 4 million viewers, helped catapult TLC into the ranks of the top 10 cable networks.
But by 2005, the show’s fifth season, “Trading Spaces” had lost about 40 percent of its audience and TLC had lost its luster. Washington Post TV critic Lisa de Moraes said, “The show was a victim of its own success, as TLC cloned it and other networks jumped on the makeover bandwagon.”
TLC’s popularity flat-lined for the next few years.
“After the ‘Trading Spaces’ heyday, we started evolving The Learning Channel concept into a live-and-learn kind of thing,” Winter said. “We realized that people don’t mind learning, but they don’t want to be taught. We had a lot of experts on the air but shifted that to people whose life experiences have turned them into an expert.”
Winter pointed to the docu-series “Jon & Kate Plus 8” as an example of average people whose experience in raising eight children made them “a kind of expert in parenting.”
“Jon & Kate,” which debuted on TLC in 2007, became a ratings powerhouse, drawing 10.6 million viewers at one point, when the couple’s marriage fell apart two years later.
Critics lambasted TLC for profiting from the family’s troubles.
O’Neill, who was instrumental in developing “Jon & Kate,” acknowledged that it was difficult deciding whether to proceed with the show in the midst of the divorce. Yet the decision came down to what the family wanted to do.
“They always had the opportunity to stop,” she said.
Setting a tone
In many ways, “Jon & Kate” set today’s tone at TLC. During the show’s five seasons — it was canceled last year — the network rolled out a string of family-centric docu-series, including “19 Kids & Counting” and “Sister Wives.” Each show delved into atypical families.
“Because there are so many media outlets, they needed to find a niche,” said Patricia A. Williamson, a professor in the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University. “TLC has reinvented itself so many times but seems to have found its stride.”
In reinventing itself, TLC has come under fire for airing shows such as “Toddlers & Tiaras” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” that critics say are voyeuristic and border on exploitation.