TLC Serves Slices of Life--and Teens Bite

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Kids will always want their MTV for videos and pop culture fads. And yes, they’re “watching the Frog” and the flawless beauties on the WB. But when it comes to daytime drama, teenage girls are tuning into TLC.

That’s right; after a day spent at school, a growing audience is punching the buttons for the Learning Channel.

Thanks to the real-life sagas of TLC’s daytime bloc--”A Wedding Story,” “A Baby Story,” “A Dating Story,” “A Makeover Story” and “A Personal Story”--the network that set its sights on adult viewers is getting some younger eyeballs.


The formats for the shows are all pretty well set, with a personal story told more or less from beginning to end. So in “A Baby Story,” for example, each episode begins with the couple in the early phases of pregnancy. The cameras follow various prenatal visits, stay on the couple as they face any possible complications and go right into the delivery room when the baby is born. A denouement catches up with the parents and the newborn a few weeks or months after delivery date. “A Wedding Story” follows the story from the planning to the reception, and after. In all cases, real people are featured, warts and all.

According to data from Nielsen Media Research, TLC has seen a 7% increase in female viewers 12-29 over the previous year in daytime--tying TLC with Lifetime in daytime ratings for women in that age group.

Now, the shows that had scores of women chatting on the phone, and online, are the talk around the lockers on high school and college campuses. And word is traveling fast.

“My best friend and I would watch the shows after school--then we’d go back to school and tell people about it and they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” says Chasne Turner, 15, a 10th-grader at Sentinel High in Corona. “Eventually, we’d come to school and everybody would be talking about, ‘Did you watch? ... ‘ It’s definitely the topic of conversation.”

“It’s interesting and it’s also informative, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time watching TV,” confesses Selma Alamin, 15, an 11th-grader at Falls Church High in Virginia. “And my parents don’t like me watching music videos because there’s always naked girls in the videos. Whenever I watch TLC, they don’t say anything, so I like that.”

Not surprisingly, TLC’s executives are pleased with the brain boom.

“Whatever age your viewers are, it’s all about the network being relevant to them,” says Roger Marmet, TLC vice president of programming and acting general manager. He credits the cult success of its neighbor-helping-neighbor remodeling show, “Trading Spaces,” for the demographic shift. “If we can bring in younger viewers now in daytime and also have shows in prime time that are relevant to them and also have them stick around for several years, then we’ve done our job in connecting with viewers.”


A New Season of Stories

The network kicked off a new season of episodes with the wedding celebrations, live births, blind dates, physical transformations, and the life-altering surgeries starring average men and women, largely from the United States and Canada.

“The strategy behind everything being a ‘story’ was to link together programming with a first-person account of their experiences, not filtered through a reporter,” Marmet says. “It’s just really a day in the life, and a really special day in the life, of these people. It’s not a report about these things but traditional storytelling.”

It’s reality television that’s really about real life. “It’s fun to watch a show where you’re experiencing a major moment in somebody’s life with them,” says Banyan Productions Chairman Susan Cohen Dicker, who produces the “Wedding,” “Dating” and “Makeover” series, as well as “Trading Spaces.” (“A Baby Story” and “A Personal Story” are produced by True Entertainment and Film Garden, respectively.) “No matter how many you do, even as a producer of them, you never know how somebody’s going to react and what’s going to happen and you really are there at that moment, which kids recognize because it’s not as scripted and its not as manipulated.”

That’s certainly the appeal for Savanah King. “It’s really an eye-opener,” says the 18-year-old freshman at Lane College in Tennessee.

“These shows just give you a different outlook on the world and how it really is.”

“It makes sense to me,” says San Francisco family psychologist Brenda Wade of the appeal of reality TV on kids. “If you think about what’s going on developmentally during that time period, kids are trying to come up with a script. They’re literally trying to figure out--Who am I? Where do I fit it? Who are my peers? What is life all about? And what would be more interesting to someone who is trying to figure out all these things than to see someone else’s story,” says Wade, who watches TLC with her 17- and 19-year-old daughters.

“This is a kind of programming that wasn’t available before when we used to have ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and things like that,” Wade continues, “and this was the problem back then--we thought everyone else’s life was like ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Oh, weren’t we surprised when we found out that it was dysfunction at the junction for everybody. Now these reality shows come right down front, and it’s, ah ha, that’s what goes on in other people’s homes and families. It’s more than voyeurism; they’re trying to learn about people and trying to create their own inner script.”


But programmers still have a lot to learn about young people, says Media Week online columnist Marc Berman. “Teens are much more worldly than what programmers give them credit for in terms of what they’ll watch on television,” says Berman, whose 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter are fans of “A Baby Story”--even before the birth of their sister five months ago.

“This is really a validation for the teen viewer. Just because they’re in that 12-to-18 demographic does not mean they’re only watching ‘Dawson’s Creek’ or MTV and VH1, or even UPN to some extent. They’re interested in all sorts of different things and they want to watch different kinds of things when they turn on the television.”

The Formula Works

Still, with teen loyalties changing as fast as Gap ads, Marmet says it’s unlikely that TLC will be doing special “teen week” episodes of these shows just to attract more young viewers. Besides, the network has a formula that’s working well and, to paraphrase the adage, there’s no point in futzing with it.

“If you go out there and target teens overtly, you stand a chance of alienating [them],” Marmet says cautiously. “It’s a very fickle demographic, teenagers, and if they think they’re being marketed to, it’s a turn-off. It’s adults saying, ‘Hey kids, it’s cool.’ You do that and you’ll have a very skeptical bunch of kids.”

For Cohen Dicker, creating a real-life teen story series is intriguing. “As a mother of a preteen, that marketplace really interests me, but it’s nothing we’ve gotten anybody to buy into yet,” she says.

The problem is finding compelling stories about kids. “You need to be of a certain age to really express yourself in a certain way and have a life history that makes your story more interesting,” she says. “That doesn’t mean teens don’t warrant it, but we need to make sure that there’s enough of a story to share.”


As Wade sees it, the warm and fuzzy TLC tales can provide teens with a positive outlook on their own life stories. “Teenagers like happy endings,” she says. “And they’re trying to get a happy-ending script together if they can.”

On TLC: “A Baby Story” is shown at 9 and 9:30 a.m., repeated at 3 and 3:30 p.m. weekdays;

“A Wedding Story,” is at 10 and 10:30 a.m., repeated at 2 and 2:30 p.m. weekdays; “A Dating Story” is at 1 and 1:30 p.m. weekdays;

“A Makeover Story” is at noon and 12:30 p.m. weekdays. “A Personal Story” is at 11 and 11:30 a.m. weekdays.