TLC’s hook on the heartland

Monica Larson is the kind of viewer the cable outlet TLC craves. A loyal fan for years, the mother of five from Westlake Village is now getting her kids hooked on family-oriented reality series like “Cake Boss” and “Say Yes to the Dress.” “I love that, overall, their shows are interesting without having to ‘push the edge’ in terms of language, innuendoes or content,” Larson said.

Heartland values are indeed what TLC pushes, carving out a profitable niche in a reality TV marketplace otherwise filled with sex-drenched youth soaps ( MTV’s “Jersey Shore”) or aspirational voyeurism (HGTV’s entire programming block). And now the network is making maybe its strongest play yet for the non-elite, middle-class audience, with a new show starring the queen of Red State America, Sarah Palin.

The combative former Alaska governor is teaming with reality super-producer Mark Burnett to start production next month on a one-hour, eight-episode series in which Palin “will show, first-hand, what it means to be Alaskan,” according to an internal summary developed by the channel’s ad department. “Each one-hour episode will feature taking on a different job, a new adventure.

“She may be hauling nets with her husband, Todd, on his commercial salmon fishing boat on Bristol Bay, roughing it in a logging camp or spotting grizzly bears while camping on Kodiak Island,” the summary continued. (Neither Palin nor Burnett was available to elaborate.)

Whether the show will connect with its target audience is anyone’s guess; Palin is already a contributor and show host for Fox News, another network self-consciously aimed at non-elites. But it’s the strongest proof yet that TLC, a unit of Discovery Communications, which also operates Discovery, Animal Planet and other networks, is determined to become the antidote to Bravo, a rival cable network that has perfected the fine art of chasing upscale viewers with wry, trendy, often-sensational fare.

“We tend to be less snarky, edgy,” TLC president Eileen O’Neill said from the company’s offices in Silver Spring, Md. “There’s something for everyone here. We do shoot all around the country. Our topics and people tend to represent a lot of daily American lives — a little less of the edgy, cooler” material than is found on Bravo or elsewhere.

With the network’s ongoing association with Kate Gosselin, the blond matriarch of the large brood in “Kate Plus 8,” TLC has now laid claim to two of the most-famous if not necessarily most-admired women in America. Gosselin seems well on her way to becoming an all-purpose pop-culture anti-heroine, while the Palin show has already been attacked by liberal groups upset by her environmental record and political conservatism. The environmental group Friends of the Earth attacked Discovery, which has aired many nature programs on its other outlets, for ordering the show: “Palin supported the barbaric practice of aerial wolf hunting for sport. She also denies outright that humans are contributing to climate chaos,” an official of the group said.

“They’re pretty fearless women who pick paths in their lives and follow them,” O’Neill said of Gosselin and Palin. “Not everyone agrees with all their choices or even some of their remarks, but we think both of them make a lot of sense for TLC as strong, compelling characters.”

But the TLC’s family-friendly identity has taken a few dings along the way. Last year, the network became engulfed in a tabloid maelstrom after Gosselin, mainstay of the network’s then-No. 1 program, became embroiled in a messy divorce from her husband. Critics argued that the presence of cameras didn’t help the clan’s delicate situation. O’Neill demurs: “What happened with relationships as intimate as a family is something none of us can understand,” she said.

Meanwhile, the overheated attention on the Gosselins may have raised unrealistic expectations about what TLC — still known to some from its 1980s incarnation as the Learning Channel, a little-trafficked backwater for educational, safety and home-improvement shows — can achieve day in, day out. O’Neill admits her biggest challenge is “navigating a post-'Jon & Kate’ world.”

“TLC benefited from ‘Jon & Kate,’ even with the tabloid issues as the show ran aground,” Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University, wrote in an e-mail. “Now, TLC needs to move forward with new angles that keep the network relevant.”

McCall added that TLC’s heartland strategy “might not lead to critical acclaim or programming awards, but they can surely get eyeballs to sell to advertisers.”

In TLC’s hands, “heartland” has not necessarily been code, as it is so often in the TV industry, for “downmarket.” For the first quarter of this year, viewers’ median income ($53,000) was almost comparable to Bravo’s ($58,000), according to the Nielsen Co. Median age was 42, only slightly older than Bravo’s 40. The network averaged 1.1 million prime-time viewers, up 10% compared with the same period a year ago — and that was mostly without the benefit of Gosselin-mania.

For the week ending June 6, TLC outrated Bravo, even among the ad-friendly demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49 (643,000 to 510,000). Among all viewers, TLC ranked 10th among cable networks, behind USA, Discovery and Fox News.

TLC executives have generally kept the focus on themes relatable to a large swath of Middle America. The network’s top shows this year have included long-running staples such as “L.A. Ink,” starring tattoo artist Kat von D, and " American Chopper,” about a father-and-son team of custom-motorcycle makers. Both series hinge on strong characters indulging popular if slightly outsiderish obsessions (“L.A. Ink” was the network’s top show for the first quarter, averaging 1.8 million viewers). TLC has high hopes for “Cake Boss,” centered on the exploits of an extroverted New Jersey baker who could be thought of as Gordon Ramsay’s much-nicer cousin.

Food is rapidly becoming a major TLC obsession: A new summer block features a cooking reality show “Inedible to Incredible” and such specials as “Mega Bites,” about a quest to make the world’s largest Rice Krispies Treat.

But the TLC brand can also be a little tough to distinguish at times. Another top series has been “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” featuring hardcore clutter mongers. “That program will drift away once the bizarre novelty disappears,” McCall said.

Programmers, however, seem to have figured out how to find a common key in material that at first blush might seem exploitative. “Little People, Big World,” about an Oregon couple who have dwarfism, has won plaudits for its portrayal of the family. Multiple births are another favorite TLC theme, with shows such as “19 Kids and Counting” and “Make Room for Multiples.” The Gosselin series tapped into that fascination — and then become a national soap opera as the couple’s marriage disintegrated.

“There are so many scenarios that you hear about where some families of multiples have children with severe health problems, lifelong developmental issues or don’t make it to full term,” said Melissa Jackson-Schuler, a 34-year-old marketing professional in Evanston, Ill. “So to watch all of the Gosselin children thriving is amazing to me.”

Earlier this month, an episode of “Kate Plus 8" devoted to her sextuplets’ sixth birthday drew 3.4 million total viewers.

Depending on how it’s made, the Palin show could end up being an even bigger definer of TLC’s image than the Gosselins have been. O’Neill promised that the ex-governer has been intimately involved with the show’s development, even though “there won’t be her opinions in the show, politically or otherwise.”

“There’s nothing on TV, honestly, that we can say this is like,” she added. “People have asked, ‘Is it a nature documentary? Is it a travelogue? Is it a docusoap? Is it a reality show?’ It’s going to have pieces of a lot of things people are familiar with, but there’s no one label.”