Adding Hours to Originals Powers TLC’s Turnaround

More viewers are saying ‘yes’ to TLC.

At a time in the cable-network business when flat is the new up, TLC is up a whopping 16% so far this year.

“We’ve got some great momentum going,” president and general manager Nancy Daniels said.

TLC, part of Discovery Communications, built its momentum by putting original programming in primetime on more nights of the week. It has also embraced an unusual strategy that has helped to boost its original hours by 13% — taking its most popular one-hour shows and making them into two-hour programs.

Daniels admitted the idea of betting on whether the audience would hang around for another hour was a bit risky. “But we were really taking a cue from how people are watching TV now and binge-watching to stick with what they love, so we’re giving them more,” she said. “It’s tough out there for repeats.”

TLC started pumping up its series with 90 Day Fiancé, a show Daniels said really connects with people. Like the bulk of the TLC schedule, 90 Day Fiancé is unscripted.

“With these shows, you often leave a lot on the cutting-room floor when you shoot for such a long period of time with people,” she said. “We talk to our producers and say, ‘Do you have enough there?’ We want an honest assessment of what they think is really there, because we’ll only hurt the show if we do it and the creative isn’t there.”

Power Hour

The extra hours have helped boost ratings without forcing the network to add a lot to its programming budget.

The rising ratings represent a turnaround for the network, which cratered amid unsavory revelations that forced it to pull popular shows Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in 2014 and 19 Kids and Counting, featuring the Duggar family, in 2015.

Canceling those shows put a dent in TLC’s ad revenues, which fell from $318.6 million in 2013 to $302.1 million in 2015, according to estimates by SNL Kagan. Ad revenues were flat last year, but Kagan sees an uptick to $325 million in 2017.

When those TLC shows were canceled, Discovery had to move advertisers into other shows. “I don’t think it’s something they hold against the network,” Discovery Communications president of ad sales Ben Price said. “We had plenty of other options and opportunities on TLC, so we overcame that pretty quickly.”

And now, Price said, advertisers are noticing the improving ratings at TLC.

“When you look at how the network is bucking the trend, it’s getting a lot of attention,” he said. “And as we go into the upfront, the timing is really good, because the ratings traction has not just been a week or two. We’re now going into our third quarter of it.”

He said the network has recently attracted some new advertisers, including Lowe’s, Atlantis and LG.

“If you’re an advertiser and you’re seeing ratings success, and you’re seeing it in brand-safe content, it definitely gets your attention,” Price said.

Daniels said that the down period was tough on TLC.

“We definitely examined all of our processes and instituted different processes where we thought there might be some lapses or some holes,” she said. “We took a real hard look at what we’re doing and how can you get ahead of things like this.”

The Real Deal

“At the same time, we’re dealing with real people and real life. And life can be messy. And we know that, and we had to kind of look at what we were doing to protect the network, but also acknowledge we’re dealing with real people and real life with real consequences,” she added. “So to see it turn around, and to live through the tough times as a team and emerge from it with some great momentum, really made it all that sweeter.”

TLC’s brand hasn’t really changed, Daniels said. It’s still a network that shares stories of unique people and families.

“We feel like our shows have a certain level of authenticity that the audience expects from us and that’s why they work,” she said. “And there’s also, I always say, when you watch our show you know you’re going to feel something, you’re going to have an emotional connection to what you’re watching.”

Discovery sometimes describes TLC as the leading network in middle America, but Daniels maintains that distinction is less about geography and more about a state of mind. And at a time when the map is defined by so-called red states and blue states, TLC tries to avoid politics.

“It’s a bit of an escape from what’s going on in the world,” she said. “It’s like comfort food.”

New on the network is scripted programming and live programming.

Season two of Tyler Perry’s Too Close to Home seemed to find an audience on Wednesday nights, Daniels said, and was a part of TLC’s ratings growth story. A decision about greenlighting season three hasn’t been announced.

TLC has renewed This Is Life Live, which followed people going through big moments in real time.

“We’re going to bring it back, definitely, in the second quarter of next year,” Daniels said.

TLC learned a lot about live programming. Last season, it prepared a lot of taped pieces because live can be unpredictable. But it turned out that the live portions of the show ran longer than expected, so this season, the network is cutting back on taped segments.

It should also be easier to cast and find good stories for season two, because people will know what the show is trying to do, Daniels said.

Season two should also be better for advertisers. In season one, Target, Pepsi, P&G and were sponsors. “Because it’s coming back, we’ll have time to build out bigger sponsorship opportunities,” Price said.

Advertisers are even more excited about the return of TLC’s iconic series Trading Spaces.

There’s Room in ‘Spaces’

Price said the show’s original sponsors want to return, and there’s a long list of additional marketers that would like to be in it as well. “We will make room for them,” he said. “We will have a lot of 360-degree opportunities there.”

Daniels and her team are still working out what the new Trading Spaces will look like when it airs in the second quarter of next year. “Is it a pure nostalgia play? Are we infusing some modern stuff into it? And everybody has an opinion, by the way, which is kind of fun and exciting,” she said. Who will host is also up in the air.

Another new show TLC is working on is a spinoff of 90 Day Fiancé called 90 Day Fiancé: What Now? that will stream on the network app, TLC Go.

“Since we’ve launched TLC Go, it’s been amazing to see a whole new life come on for your shows. We see a different reaction when they’re being downloaded or being streamed on TLC Go,” Daniels said.

The app attracts a younger demo and users tune in for an average of 68 minutes per session — an attractive statistic for advertisers.

To Daniels, consumption on the app demonstrates the strength of TLC’s content.

“I look at TLC as a brand, not just a linear network,” she said. “We have to be strong as a brand and mean something as a brand across all platforms to stay relevant.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.