Published on February 28th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
The Learning Channel: What the F&#k Happened?
Here are a couple fun facts for you. Did you know that the acronym TLC used to stand for The Learning Channel? And did you know that TLC began its ignominious rise to its current state as the Appalachian Community Service Network in 1972, founded by a collaboration between the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and NASA? They created the network as a means of providing informative and educational television content for free to the public. Seriously.
These days you turn on TLC for predatory programming that capitalizes on the human desire to rubberneck at accidents they drive by and exploits human lives for base entertainment with the promise of fleeting fame.
So what the f&#k happened to TLC?
The roots of the shift in the network’s mandate started in 1980 when it was privatized. It stayed focused on information-based shows while ownership switched hands over the next several years. That focus slipped a little more each time someone new took over. Then, TLC got a taste of big ratings with Trading Spaces (2000 to 2008), a home improvement show that had neighbours switch houses and renovate one room with the help of professional decorators, carpenters, and a spunky host. The success of this pseudo-reality TV programming sent them down the path that led to the land of behind the scenes at children’s beauty pageants and what used to be people’s personal issues laid out for the world to enjoy. It’s the type of content formerly reserved for Jerry Springer audition tapes that were rejected for being too crass. They recently reached a new low with a show about a man’s giant scrotum. Modern TLC is about as educational as drinking a can of paint thinner while hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. Or watching a Michael Bay movie. It has roughly the same long-term effect.
TLC’s decline in quality in the mad search for ratings is symptomatic of TV’s overall fascination with “reality” programming. While we are in a new golden age of TV thanks to the film brain drain to certain savvy TV networks, others have become addicted to the quick fix that shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo offer. Network executives are reality TV junkies in an almost literal sense. It’s cheap to produce, easy to air, and offers a quick ratings high that wears off once the public becomes tired of the subject de jour’s tragic circumstances.
Reality TV is the roughly equivalent of crystal meth. Vince Gilligan should make a new series about Walt filming a reality show in the desert. It could be called Making Bad. See what I did there?
The sad thing is that much of the TV TLC produces isn’t even up to the standards of reality TV stalwarts like American Idol or Survivor. Shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo take the desire to be famous on TV and turn it into a carnival sideshow where people are laughing at you, not with you. After all the editing and staging is done, who knows what the Thompsons are actually like? Did you know Honey Boo Boo’s last name is Thompson? The supposed reality of their lives has been enhanced to make it entertaining, ironically obscuring any chance to see the reality of their lives. Why? Because reality is boring, no matter how tall you are, fat you are, or giant your scrotum is.
The only truly palatable reality TV that’s been out there on a regular basis are cooking shows, though even that has been perverted by cooking competitions and the search for food tasting money shots as overly attractive people sample grub of unknown quality in an almost orgasmic fashion. Oddly enough, Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives is one of the few shows still about the actual pursuit of good food if you can tolerate Guy Fieri’s antics for 22 minutes.
Using the word reality to describe reality TV is a misnomer at best. Scenes are staged. Edits are made to change the tone. Products are placed for additional revenue. One of the worst examples of this was a relatively recent episode of Animal Planet’s Tanked when the two main guys stopped to enjoy Ice Breakers and comment on how much they loved them. They fabricated a moment so natural and real that you felt like it was pulled from your very life. If you stop mid conversation to talk about how awesome these mints are and stare at the label for a almost a full second. Reality TV is as staged as scripted TV except that there isn’t a writer or script involved, just a bunch of prompted, edited schlock. Again, much like a Michael Bay movie.
But who is at fault for this content? Networks produce it and put it on the air. The subjects agree to participate, and hopefully understand that they’re being exploited. The consumer watches it. For all of my holier-than-thou bluster, I am as guilty as the next person. I was a devotee of Trading Spaces and I adore Tanked. Though I don’t seek it out, I get sucked in by What Not to Wear every time. And there was a time I was referred to as a Storage Wars addict, though that faded when A&E started playing the reruns on an almost 24-hour a day loop. There’s only so much Darrell Sheets one man can stand in a 24-hour period.
Ultimately, it’s our fault. We are the enablers, complaining about the lack of new content on TV and then settling in for the next exploitative, banal reality series that catches our attention for a few seconds. How can you blame the ratings chasers for feeding the beast when that beast craps success and dollars? Stop watching it and they’ll stop making it. And the tides may be finally turning on that front.
American Idol, one of the longest standing singing completion reality shows, is finally on its last legs after seasons of producing and promoting talentless hacks. Only a handful of participants have been able to establish any kind of career after competing on the show, and even fewer have made that career last. Jennifer Hudson is one of the few true talents American Idol has produced and she didn’t win it. Survivor, another juggernaut of the medium, is currently sporting a massive decline in viewer ratings. Season One in 2000 averaged viewers around 28 million per episode with more than 50 million tuning in for the finale. The 26th edition in early 2013 brought in almost 11 million viewers per episode with 10 million tuning in for the finale. The luster of the biggest names in reality TV has definably worn off and a resurgence in quality, scripted TV has been underway on HBO, FX, AMC, and other cable networks for years. Just look at their dominance at the 2013 Emmys.
Will TLC go back to being The Learning Channel? That’s about as likely as A&E going back to being about arts and entertainment, and not about people hording their crap or buying the crap people hoarded out of storage lockers. Still, one can at least take the time to search out reality shows that actually provide education and information, and don’t just appeal to our base rubbernecking instincts.
Where’s Alton Brown with Good Eats when I need him?