As TLC’s Cable Rivals Struggle, Chief Howard Lee Brings in Record Ratings

With powerful franchises and insatiable fans, Adweek's TV Executive of the Year is bucking linear's downward trend

Howard Lee headshot
"I think that our viewer somehow is the programmer of our lineup," Howard Lee says. Courtesy of TLC

When life for families around the country ground to a halt due to Covid-19, which forced them into quarantine, TLC president and general manager Howard Lee knew there would be plenty of stories to tell. So he began to brainstorm.

“At that moment in mid-March when the pandemic hit all of us, [Discovery chief lifestyle brands officer] Kathleen Finch and I didn’t miss a beat,” Lee, Adweek’s TV Executive of the Year, recalls. “I hurried up and jumped along with the team and thought, ‘What can we do during this time when we are in lockdown?’”

Even before the pandemic, TLC was gearing up for a great year. In the first quarter of 2020, the cable network, known for hits like Say Yes to the Dress and Cake Boss, held the No. 1 spot in prime-time ad-supported cable among women 18-49 and women 25-54, with some of TV’s most well-known television franchises, including smash hit 90 Day Fiancé, long-running Little People, Big World and the 19 Kids and Counting spinoff, Counting On.

When the many challenges brought on by Covid-19 came into focus, so did the opportunity: Lockdowns meant more downtime for the cable network’s fans, and those viewers would want updates on the colorful cast of characters who comprise TLC’s already robust unscripted programming slate. “The TLC talent has already been conditioned to always be shooting about things going on in their lives in front of cameras, since that is the bread and butter of the storytelling we make,” Lee says. “They just had to learn how to do it without a crew entering their doors. They had to learn how to do that remotely through a computer screen or through their phones. That was the key to that transition.”

That shift also offered up a chance to make new programming entirely. Fans of TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé franchise “were very curious about what was going on with their favorite couples during quarantine,” Lee says. So, his team got to work contacting several of them from past seasons of the show. For many of those cast members, it was an easy sell—“They all wanted to be on,” Lee says—and by the end of April, TLC aired the first episode of 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined, a five-episode spinoff that featured 40 people who had previously appeared on the six-season series.

The turnaround time was “blazingly fast,” Lee says, and it required a complete overhaul of getting programming to the air. Producers directed and shared notes remotely, giving directions on lighting and recording techniques, while confessional interviews were filmed via video chat. Lee himself had to get comfortable with the imperfection inherent in the remote production experiment.

TLC tried other experiments, too, debuting a live reality dating series Find Love Live!, which sets up eligible bachelors and bachelorettes over videoconference calls on live TV with a moderator. (After the show brought in a total of 5 million viewers in its first three episodes, TLC ordered nine more.)

“We have nothing to lose here,” Lee recalls thinking. “We’re all in this Covid environment, and this is populating our lineup even more and making us come up with even more inventive ideas with what to do.”

Lee admits he was worried about how viewers would respond to the sometimes haphazard-looking programming that talent were filming on their own. “I realized things will look scrappier, things may not look as perfect, things will not look and feel like it was prepandemic any longer,” Lee says. “For me, for all of us, we had to say, ‘Would they be willing to accept that, or is this too sloppy for them to watch?’”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.