TLC finished May tied with sister Discovery network HGTV as basic cable’s most-watched entertainment service, averaging more than 1.2 million viewers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Under senior VP of production and development Alon Orstein, TLC has developed a lineup of resonant relationship and personality-themed shows, including 90-Day Fiancé; Little People, Big World; Sister Wives and Dr. Pimple Popper. The 20-year Discovery veteran took time out from working (from home) to speak with senior content producer, programming R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s success.
How have you been dealing with the pandemic? It’s been a lot of transitioning to this home environment and connecting with colleagues on Zoom. I have two young kids at home, so probably the most challenging thing for me has been managing full-time parenting while TLC has remained as busy as ever. But we have a really good working machine here at TLC and we have a good system to keep the trains moving and adapt.
What’s the formula behind TLC’s strength on the ratings front? The network has actually had 12 consecutive months of upward growth, so we’re really building momentum and continuing an upward trend that started a while back. We’ve seen success with both of our 90-Day Fiancé series and everything from Sister Wives and Little People, Big World. In regards to the whole world of quarantine, we were able to quickly pivot and look for ways to continue to produce compelling television even under these unprecedented circumstances. We were able to develop shows like 90-Day Fiancé: Self Quarantine in a few weeks and get it on the air. We also did a show called Find Love Live, which we were really excited about, which also was shot remotely.
Why has the 90-Day Fiancé franchise become so popular on the network and on social media? The [franchise] is about people finding the one. These are stories about real relationships. These aren’t situations where people have been thrust together for the purpose of the television show, but rather these are people who found each other and we are following that journey. There is something that is very special about being that fly on the wall, as you see the relationship come to fruition, and to really see the ebb and flow of that. Also, it’s one of the most diverse shows possibly in the history of television.
What can we expect from TLC over the next six months? We have a new season of 90-Day Fiancé: The Other Way, in which an American is leaving everything behind to take a chance on love in a foreign country. It’s a flip-flop of 90-Day Fiancé proper. We also have Happily Ever After, which was our very first spinoff of 90-Day Fiancé. Most of this stuff we had in the can prior to the pandemic. We also have Smothered on the air right now, and we also have Outdaughtered coming back, which is our story about the Busby family and their quintuplets.
How do you see the TV industry rebounding from the pandemic? I think it’s going to be case by case, network by network and maybe even show by show. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in an environment like this — this is a first for all of us, but I think we are learning as we go and trying to do everything we can to make sure that we are continuing to put out good, compelling television. How the chips fall and the landscape plays out we’ll see, but I think we’re well-positioned.
What shows are on your DVR?Better Call Saul (just finished the last season during quarantine); The Rachel Maddow Show; Paw Patrol (for a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old).
Favorite show of all time? So hard: The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the NCAA basketball tournament.
Favorite podcast?Fresh Air and really anything from NPR.
What books are on your nightstand?T.C. Boyle Stories; The Wine Avenger by Willie Gluckstern.
Favorite food destination of all time? Aiello’s Pizza in hometown Pittsburgh.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.