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August 21, 2012

TLC's gamble: Sticking to reality

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TLC's next big hit, "Trading Spaces," which launched in 2000, lured viewers with the unpredictability of people's reactions to home makeovers led by their neighbors. The show, averaging 4 million viewers, helped catapult TLC into the ranks of the top 10 cable networks.

But by 2005, the show's fifth season, "Trading Spaces" had lost about 40 percent of its audience and TLC had lost its luster. Washington Post TV critic Lisa de Moraes said, "The show was a victim of its own success, as TLC cloned it and other networks jumped on the makeover bandwagon."

TLC's popularity flat-lined for the next few years.

"After the 'Trading Spaces' heyday, we started evolving The Learning Channel concept into a live-and-learn kind of thing," Winter said. "We realized that people don't mind learning, but they don't want to be taught. We had a lot of experts on the air but shifted that to people whose life experiences have turned them into an expert."

Winter pointed to the docu-series "Jon & Kate Plus 8" as an example of average people whose experience in raising eight children made them "a kind of expert in parenting."

"Jon & Kate," which debuted on TLC in 2007, became a ratings powerhouse, drawing 10.6 million viewers at one point, when the couple's marriage fell apart two years later.

Critics lambasted TLC for profiting from the family's troubles.

O'Neill, who was instrumental in developing "Jon & Kate," acknowledged that it was difficult deciding whether to proceed with the show in the midst of the divorce. Yet the decision came down to what the family wanted to do.

"They always had the opportunity to stop," she said.

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