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TLC = TabLoid Channel?



In the first decade-and-a-half after its launch into widespread expanded basic cable in November of 1980, The Learning Channel was true to its mission of promoting learning. Focusing on subjects such as science, nature, history and technology, the network provided a notable bright spot amongst the networks on cable, and proved true to the early cable industry’s boast of broadening the content television could offer to viewers and of providing content for every niche interest. Even after the network’s purchase by its then-rival the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel continued to focus primarily on educational content.


The last decade has been a different story.  


In recent years, the network which was once such a boon to children, parents and teachers, and which realized the promise which cable held as a haven for those tired of commercial television, has become inundated by content with a crassly sexualized and violent tint. If such programming is not as extreme as that found on cable dramas or sitcoms, neither can it be considered educational, edifying or at all related to the mission of a network supposedly devoted to learning.


By 2006, The Learning Channel was devoting more and more space to programming obsessed with physical abnormalities -- what in less enlightened times would have been called “freak shows.” Programs like 99 Most Bizarre, which featured "mistakes by doctors," "botched surgeries," and "medical mistakes," Untold Stories of the ER, and Half Man, Full Life, about "a man born with half a body,” filled TLC’s schedule.  TLC has continued this theme: during Christmas week 2008 TLC ran two entire nights of My Shocking Story, featuring themes like “an extraordinary skin condition,” “a man with a parasitic twin,” “primordial dwarfism” and “a 31-inch tall woman” – in addition to the unforgettably-titled program Woman with Giant Legs.


Today, TLC’s programming is a mixture of crime shows like Extreme Forensics, Solved, Personal Justice, Dr. G: Medical Examiner, and 48 Hours Mystery; fashion-and-beauty programs like What Not to Wear, Pre-Teen Beauty Queen, Say Yes to the Dress and Baby Ballroom; and the innocuous mega-hits Little People, Big World and John & Kate Plus 8 which, though family-friendly and even occasionally uplifting, nevertheless continue in a milder form the network’s focus on the unusual, both physical and familial.


In early March 2008, TLC began using its new slogan "Life surprises". Certainly the network’s most recent announcement of upcoming programming is a surprise; an article from the Associated Press notes that on Super Bowl Sunday TLC will offer viewers Mother Knows Sex, a program about a woman whose company sells sex toys through home parties, ala Tupperware or Amway.


At a time when, as the Federal Communications Commission recently announced, the cost of cable TV has gone up 122 percent since 1995, cable and satellite subscribers must ask themselves whether they should be forced to pay for this tawdry content every month with their subscription fee.


Since 1998, The Learning Channel has identified itself exclusively with the saccharine acronym "TLC" – as if being a channel devoted to learning is somehow something to be ashamed of.  Considering the network’s newfound obsession with sex, sleazy crime, fashion, and bizarre family and medical conditions, it might be best asked if “TLC” now stands for the TabLoid Channel.


For more information about the PTC’s Cable Choice campaign, click here.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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