TLC renovates its image after 35% ratings drop

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After a 35% ratings plunge from last year, TLC is hoping to pull itself up this fall-and it'll take an inch wherever it can get it.

The network is making the rounds to media agencies, touting an initiative it's calling "Next TLC"-a plan to bring the network into the post-"Trading Spaces" era.

"It's part of a gradual evolution," said the network's general manager, David Abraham, who was installed in April from Discovery Networks U.K.

The Discovery-owned TLC readily admits it overindulged in the home-makeover genre, particularly on its "Trading Spaces" hit. At the same time, media buyers speculate it's been hit by increased competition from a slew of other cable networks with similar lifestyle programming, from HGTV's personality-driven home-decorating fare to A&E's pop-culture-oriented prime-time lineup-and even from its own digital cable siblings, such as Discovery Health Channel and Discovery Home Channel.

According to media buyers who've been briefed on "Next TLC," the network is returning to its roots, teeing up a mix of reality-based lifestyle programming that spans a variety of genres. The network skews about 60% female and has averaged a 0.5 household rating since the beginning of the year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

This fall the network tried to differentiate itself with an ambitious slate of new programming-seven series premiering within a month. Mr. Abraham at the Television Critics Association earlier this year said the network was moving from a "listen-and-learn" approach to a "live-and-learn" approach. Additionally, said buyers familiar with the network, it boasts an unusually high number of shows in development.

"That says to me that they're serious about rejuvenating the network," said Aaron Cohen, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Horizon Media, New York. "A lot of people were very upset with them in their relative diminished performance. It did pull down their ability to sell the network in the upfront unless they were willing to charge for less." But, Mr. Cohen added, all it takes is "a couple of sparks to jump off the page."

The early ratings for its new fall shows are middling-hovering around the 0.5 to 0.6 range. "Ballroom Bootcamp," a program that takes average Joes, teaches them to dance and pits them against each other in competition, has averaged a 0.6 household rating and 409,000 viewers ages 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. "The Adam Carolla Project," in which the comedian remodels his childhood home with a group of friends, has averaged a 0.45 household rating and 506,000 viewers 18 to 49.

Building beyond a 1

"To get mid- to high-single [tenths of a ratings point] of these new shows is quite satisfactory," Mr. Abraham said. "That gives you a chance to commission a second season and build it beyond a 1 rating."

While the network will need to show results to give buyers confidence enough to spend their money at the network, most agree it's a smart plan to pack the pipeline and create a stable of hits rather than a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. "They didn't just slap something together and try to make a quick fix," said Shari Cohen, co-executive director of national broadcast at MindShare. "They realize they need to be patient, and aim for singles rather than a grand slam."

TLC's makeover is an 18- to-24-month one, Mr. Abraham said, with the immediate goal of stabilizing the schedule. He said he'll look at the month-to-month comparisons in judging the network's progress.

While some of the new shows initially appear disconnected to the channel's look and feel over the past couple years, Mr. Abraham insisted they make perfect sense with the network's new mission.

With "Tuckerville," "other networks might have said let's do an expose, voyeur-type show on a country-western star [Tanya Tucker] and it might come out a bit like `The Osbournes,"' he said. "I thought that was less compelling than a single mom who has to raise her children, doesn't have any help from the men in her life or her past, and has to go out and work."

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