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TLC's hook on the heartland

The cable channel's new show with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is perhaps its strongest play for a middle-class audience.

June 20, 2010|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

Monica Larson is the kind of viewer the cable outlet TLC craves. A loyal fan for years, the mother of five from Westlake Village is now getting her kids hooked on family-oriented reality series like "Cake Boss" and "Say Yes to the Dress." "I love that, overall, their shows are interesting without having to 'push the edge' in terms of language, innuendoes or content," Larson said.

Heartland values are indeed what TLC pushes, carving out a profitable niche in a reality TV marketplace otherwise filled with sex-drenched youth soaps ( MTV's "Jersey Shore") or aspirational voyeurism (HGTV's entire programming block). And now the network is making maybe its strongest play yet for the non-elite, middle-class audience, with a new show starring the queen of Red State America, Sarah Palin.

The combative former Alaska governor is teaming with reality super-producer Mark Burnett to start production next month on a one-hour, eight-episode series in which Palin "will show, first-hand, what it means to be Alaskan," according to an internal summary developed by the channel's ad department. "Each one-hour episode will feature taking on a different job, a new adventure.

"She may be hauling nets with her husband, Todd, on his commercial salmon fishing boat on Bristol Bay, roughing it in a logging camp or spotting grizzly bears while camping on Kodiak Island," the summary continued. (Neither Palin nor Burnett was available to elaborate.)

Whether the show will connect with its target audience is anyone's guess; Palin is already a contributor and show host for Fox News, another network self-consciously aimed at non-elites. But it's the strongest proof yet that TLC, a unit of Discovery Communications, which also operates Discovery, Animal Planet and other networks, is determined to become the antidote to Bravo, a rival cable network that has perfected the fine art of chasing upscale viewers with wry, trendy, often-sensational fare.

"We tend to be less snarky, edgy," TLC president Eileen O'Neill said from the company's offices in Silver Spring, Md. "There's something for everyone here. We do shoot all around the country. Our topics and people tend to represent a lot of daily American lives — a little less of the edgy, cooler" material than is found on Bravo or elsewhere.

With the network's ongoing association with Kate Gosselin, the blond matriarch of the large brood in "Kate Plus 8," TLC has now laid claim to two of the most-famous if not necessarily most-admired women in America. Gosselin seems well on her way to becoming an all-purpose pop-culture anti-heroine, while the Palin show has already been attacked by liberal groups upset by her environmental record and political conservatism. The environmental group Friends of the Earth attacked Discovery, which has aired many nature programs on its other outlets, for ordering the show: "Palin supported the barbaric practice of aerial wolf hunting for sport. She also denies outright that humans are contributing to climate chaos," an official of the group said.

"They're pretty fearless women who pick paths in their lives and follow them," O'Neill said of Gosselin and Palin. "Not everyone agrees with all their choices or even some of their remarks, but we think both of them make a lot of sense for TLC as strong, compelling characters."

But the TLC's family-friendly identity has taken a few dings along the way. Last year, the network became engulfed in a tabloid maelstrom after Gosselin, mainstay of the network's then-No. 1 program, became embroiled in a messy divorce from her husband. Critics argued that the presence of cameras didn't help the clan's delicate situation. O'Neill demurs: "What happened with relationships as intimate as a family is something none of us can understand," she said.

Meanwhile, the overheated attention on the Gosselins may have raised unrealistic expectations about what TLC — still known to some from its 1980s incarnation as the Learning Channel, a little-trafficked backwater for educational, safety and home-improvement shows — can achieve day in, day out. O'Neill admits her biggest challenge is "navigating a post-'Jon & Kate' world."

"TLC benefited from 'Jon & Kate,' even with the tabloid issues as the show ran aground," Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University, wrote in an e-mail. "Now, TLC needs to move forward with new angles that keep the network relevant."

McCall added that TLC's heartland strategy "might not lead to critical acclaim or programming awards, but they can surely get eyeballs to sell to advertisers."

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