As a latchkey kid in Queens, Howard Lee had enough discipline to barrel through homework before turning on the television. Then, he watched everything. On a whim, he auditioned for The High School of Performing Arts and was accepted as a drama student. Lee later earned a degree in film and television from NYU. Still, he was uncertain about what path to take.
After graduating, he became a production assistant on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and worked on a string of low-budget horror movies before taking production roles at Travel Channel and increasing levels of network management at parent company Discovery, eventually leading to his role as the President of TLC, a post he assumed a year ago. It’s been a year of tremendous successes, and Lee is in a terrific mood as he recounts a few of them. TLC, the No. 2 ad-supported cable network among women, has enjoyed 14 consecutive months of year-over-year growth and some of the buzziest shows in television, including I Am Jazzand Trading Spaces, as well as mega-hits Lee greenlit, like 90 Day FiancéandDr. Pimple Popper.
Lee previewed a bit of what advertisers can expect to hear about TLC when Kathleen Finch, Chief Lifestyle Brands Officer for Discovery, takes center stage at Alice Tully Hall for the company’s Upfront on April 10, including a new series following 90 Day fan-favorite couple Pedro and Chantel calledThe Family Chantel. Lee shared news of this spinoff, and also reflected on his career and hopes for TLC in a wide-ranging interview. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Jacqueline Cutler: As you shepherd a show from concept to air, what are you looking for? How much is instinctual?
Howard Lee: I think that is one of the hardest areas in our world, in terms of content. Any platform, television, digital -- how do you trust your gut despite anything you might be hearing from research or your colleagues? It is very daunting. Sometimes shows might not win over the hearts of everybody, but they win over the hearts of the audience, and it shows in our brand mission. People who have a story to tell or who cover a subculture that may not be popular. What is the point of TLC? It is to shed light on people who are part of unique worlds who really have something to express. We are non-judgmental.
Cutler: How did one of your biggest hits, Dr. Pimple Popper, come about?
Lee: Dr. Sandra Lee is renowned. The audience sits and listens and understands and experiences the story of the individual who comes to her for help. They may be stigmatized for something on their body. She is able to bring a solution and maybe a resolution to these folks who may not know where to go for help. On TLC, you are getting the background, the full story and understanding of the people who come to her. There is always a transformation on every hour of Dr. Pimple Popper.
Cutler: What were some of your favorite moments from your shows this year?
Lee: I must talk about the fact that I was so proud this year of I Am Jazz. She underwent her long-awaited gender confirmation surgery. That had not been seen on television with someone who just turned 18. It’s a testament to her family that they were sharing their story with us. With TLC talent, even with cameras there, they don’t mind showing the hurdles and obstacles of what they are trying to achieve. In this area, particularly with transgender individuals, you don’t always see the struggle that entails. I think that Jazz Jennings is remarkable -- that she and her family, siblings and friends all embraced this to make the world aware that she needed to tell her truth.
Cutler: What does that say about the trust the talent places in the network?
Lee: We are very much aware that it is a joint effort. If they are not comfortable with something, we will not show it. This applies to any of our programs. We are a hallmark for showing non-fiction family programming. We consider that we own that area, and families come in all shapes and sizes: the Jennings from I Am Jazz, Sweet Home Sextuplets and OutDaughtered -- even a design show, Nate & Jeremiah By Design, is two gay husbands that have two children. Family is not just categorically mom and dad and two children conceived from birth. We are inclusive of all types of families.
Cutler: There’s a major TLC event coming up in 2020. Could you tease it a bit?
Lee: It’s called Say Yes to the Dress America,a tie-in with the originalSay Yes to the Dress with Kleinfeld (the famed bridal salon in Brooklyn). We will select one bride from every state, as well as Puerto Rico and D.C., plucking 52 brides and giving them a wedding experience unlike any other. They will get an all-expenses-paid trip to New York. We are shooting the (presentation of the gowns to the brides) at Kleinfeld. This event will culminate at an iconic New York City location, not yet disclosed, where Randy Fenoli, host from Say Yes to the Dress, will officiate (one big) wedding.
Cutler: What are your goals for the network?
Lee: I want to see more family programming and want to make sure that 90 Day Fiancécontinues to stay No. 1; that we keep satiating the appetite of the female viewer who wants so much more. But we are far more than 90 Dayand Dr. Pimple Popper. We have countless returning series coming back. I am very proud of this stable of shows, and it’s such a broad palette at TLC. We are trying something new this year with Kate Plus Date. Kate Gosselin and her original show, Jon and Kate Plus 8, was the show that started a lot of the family programming genre. We are going to take a stab at that to see if she can find true love.
Most of all, I want TLC to continue to be inclusive in our storytelling … that is who we are at our best and we will not waiver from that. With stories about all types of families, extraordinary people living their truth … giving our viewers the relatable, real-life stories that represent the true fabric of America.
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