TLC Puts The Learning Back In Its Lineup

TLC is returning to its roots, placing a renewed emphasis on the “learning” proposition that once defined the network.

The Discovery Communications property is heading into the 2006 upfront buying season with a new tag line (“Live and Learn”), a younger target demo and a brace of fresh programming that, while diverse in scope and subject matter, is tied together by a single guiding principle, said David Abraham, executive vp and general manager, TLC. “It’s been some time since the network talked overtly about learning,” said Abraham, who added that the return to programming focused on knowledge and personal growth is a step toward “joining the dots of a great brand that became for a time a bit one-dimensional.”

While the numerous new series TLC will roll out between now and first quarter 2007 hew to the network’s favored unscripted template, that’s where the similarities between this year’s TLC and the channel that went to the well too many times with Trading Spaces begin and end.

“Our target is those people who are in their 30s, when life experience goes from a steady trickle to a firehose,” said Abraham. “It’s a period when people in this age bracket go from a structured learning environment to a time when, on their own, they acquire knowledge about themselves, their children, their health, their spirituality. Our shows were carefully chosen to reflect that idea.”

Among the shows that TLC will introduce at its upfront presentation in New York April 6 are: Family Trip, a series that sends families out on the road to relive vacations they took a generation ago (premiering in fourth quarter or early ’07); The Messengers, a one-hour series about “spirituality, charity and hope” set to debut in mid- to late summer; Take Home Chef, a cooking show hosted by Australian chef Curtis Stone, who helps strangers plan elaborate surprise meals for their friends and families; and The Monastery, an unscripted entry that places two groups of people in a pair of secluded monasteries for 40 days. (The latter two shows are expected to debut some time before the end of the year.)

In order to generate interest in its new programming philosophy, TLC will launch a marketing initiative beginning March 27. The network will begin running a series of tongue-in-cheek spots that introduce viewers to the sort of “life lessons” that are first learned––often under duress––by people in TLC’s new target demo. The 30-second spots, which will run on all Discovery networks as well as the broadcast nets, include a humorous take on the dangers of DIY, a warning about the hazards of malicious gossip and a more sober condemnation of gluttony. The latter spot, which depicts an overweight man and his equally chubby son munching on sugary doughnuts, teases TLC’s new series Honey, We’re Killing The Kids! (premiering April 10 at 9 p.m.). Other spots are tied in with Shalom at Home, which also starts April 10 at 10 p.m.

TLC is so sold on the notion of its “Life Lessons” campaign that it plans to commission a series of collectible figurines that subscribers can buy online at its newly-launched site, TLC Lifelessons.com or at DiscoveryStore.com. The statuettes, which are like plasticized Precious Moments figurines, minus the saccharine, will be priced at around $15 and will be available later this summer.

Joe Abruzzese, president of advertising sales, Discovery Networks US, said there are two key advantages to TLC’s revitalized brand strategy. “Nobody’s really in this space, and that really resonates with buyers,” Abruzzese said. “But the big piece is, this clears up any idea that there is duplication or redundancy between TLC and Discovery.”

As Abruzzese hits the road to sell TLC, he’ll catch a bit of a tailwind from the net’s resurgent ratings in the past several weeks. While TLC’s total viewership was down 25 percent in total day in 2005, and off 23 percent in prime, the arterial bleeding seems to have stopped—the net was off just 1 percent in prime time, drawing 719,000 total viewers in February ’05 over February ’04, and its delivery of 405,000 viewers 18-49 was flat.

Some of the rebound can be chalked up to TLC’s undersized new stars. Since its debut three weeks ago, the new unscripted series Little People, Big World has drawn 16 million cumulative viewers. The March 4 debut garnered an average audience of nearly 1.4 million total viewers. By week three, the number was up to nearly 3 million viewers.

Media agency executives that have seen Abruzzese and Abraham’s “Life Lessons” pitch said that if nothing else, it’s a big improvement over last year’s fare. Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vp/director of Starcom Entertainment, said the value of TLC’s new thrust lies in the novelty of its upcoming shows.

“They needed to shed their old skin, and while I can’t say for sure that this is necessarily the right direction, all the shows do have a unique point of view,” she said. “At least they’re not derivative.”

That said, TLC can still expect to take a few lumps in this year’s upfront, after having dodged a bullet last year. (Abruzzese acknowledges that TLC “got a bye last year,” although he remains chipper about the net’s prospects this time around.) “They have to bring something to the table, and they understand that,” said Caraccioli-Davis.