During "Virtual Lunch at Michael's" TLC's Howard Lee Shares Reality

By Tomorrow Will Be Televised Archives
Cover image for  article: During "Virtual Lunch at Michael's" TLC's Howard Lee Shares Reality

In spite of pandemic circumstances forcing TV channels to alter how they craft unscripted series, TLC continues to hold steady as the top cable network among women age 18-54, and top-rated cable network on Sunday nights.  Watch the virtual Lunch at Michael's here.

Those achievements lead TLC president and general manager Howard Lee to puzzle why advertisers want to pull out of their commercial agreements, rather than pull more dollars in for support. "This is the right time to really be there at the forefront, and to make sure that your message gets out there when you've got this much impact and viewers," Lee declared near the end of his participation last month in the first-ever virtual "Lunch at Michael's," hosted by Jack Myers as part of his Leadership Conversation series.

Lee's network continues to play home to some of the most unique series on the unscripted side of the TV ledger, concentrating on one-of-a-kind relationships or occupational situations. Examples of the former: 90-Day Fiancé, My 600-Pound Life, Little People, Big World and Dragnificent! Long-running members of the second category include Say Yes To The Dress, Long Island Medium and Dr. Pimple Popper.

Several of the relationship shows, including 90-Day Fiancé, have equally successful off-spring series that serve as prequels or natural follow-ups. The current Sunday night lineup features Before The 90 Days, a prequel. For Lee, audience relatability is the driver for TLC's rating results.

"Everybody has a personal journey and a story that they really want to express," he continues. "Maybe it's something about their skin color or ethnicity, maybe there's something physically…They want to make sure that they are no longer misunderstood. That's the powerful part of our brand. We give them that outlet. We give them that soapbox. Our audience is fascinated by hearing about somebody else's journey and are willing to give them a chance to be in their living rooms, on their screens or platforms, to watch and hear."

"What I do touches everyone in such a different way, and whether someone loses a parent or a child, what I do brings so much peace and comfort, and also hope. That's what we all need right now," adds Long Island Medium subject Theresa Caputo, whose program has been a TLC mainstay for most of the last decade. "TLC has allowed me to be just me. I've always been allowed to express my gift and use my gift in the way that it was intended to."

In recent weeks, most of the individuals and families portrayed week-by-week on TLC have learned to tape or film themselves where they live, instead of relying on a production crew. That shift, necessitated by the coronavirus environment in various states, has created a more compelling draw among viewers. "Sometimes they even become more honest than ever for our programming, and we love that," Lee believes.

All the credit goes to TLC's staff, working out of their respective homes near offices outside Washington, D.C., New York, or Los Angeles. Luckily, way before the pandemic began, officials in all three locations used Zoom to conduct interoffice meetings or communicate with production teams in the field. "It's just part of our DNA, even more so now than ever," explains Lee. "If anything, it has taught us all that we can still keep pushing and conducting business as much as we humanly can…I'm startled at how much our entire tea has been able to fortify and really think through what's happening around the corner, and make sure these countless hours are still coming in."

Nevertheless, "I really miss the interactions with our team," he acknowledges, "and the side conversations of somebody just dipping into your office and bumping into somebody in the hallway."

In recent weeks, TLC has brought back sMothered for a second season on Sunday nights. A breakout program from last year, sMothered is an unscripted anthology where each episode presents a beyond-the-norm situation uniting mother and daughter.

However long it takes for the pandemic to subside, count on a wave of new original series, with a diversity of subjects and subject matter, to surface on the channel's primetime and daytime lineups through the end of 2020. "Everything we make and do provides a very welcome distraction for the world right now," insists Lee. "This is why people are tuning in right now. They are enjoying this distraction. It's needed right now."

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