The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Nation, World

August 21, 2012

TLC's gamble: Sticking to reality

Elevator doors open. And there they are — Stacy, Clinton and even Randy, cast members from TLC's "What Not to Wear" and "Say Yes to the Dress," gazing out from life-size murals adorning the walls of the cable network's offices.

At every turn of the sixth-floor digs in the headquarters of parent company Discovery Communications, TLC's reality-show stars greet you.

Even the furniture in the waiting area — cupcake-shaped chairs tucked into a cake stand table — is a nod to Washington's sibling bakers and Jersey's pastry chieftain whose antics have gained a following for "D.C. Cupcakes" and "Cake Boss," respectively.

Every colorful quirk of the decor reflects the network's dedicated exploration of eccentricity. TLC revels in documenting everyday people living life, no matter how bizarre or mundane.

It's a Wednesday morning in Silver Spring, Md., and Eileen O'Neill, president of TLC and Discovery networks, is ready to talk about vision. She makes her way into the conference room, where general manager Amy Winter is already seated.

Winter is the young, urbane optimist, O'Neill the thoughtful pragmatist. They epitomize TLC's target audience: women intrigued by the world around them.

"Whether it's something as controversial as polygamy or as amenable as a baker's shop, the aim is for the audience to come away with something of value and interest," O'Neill said when asked about TLC's programming goals.

What separates TLC from other networks, Winter chimes in, is its "compelling characters" who "tell their stories in a very openhearted way." Audiences tune in for the authenticity of those stories, for the reality.

Reality TV is at the heart of TLC's formula, as it is with much of cable television's, but a sea change may be occurring: Competing networks such as Bravo and History are turning to scripted programming to appeal to an increasingly fragmented audience and to attract ad dollars.

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