Edinburgh ’20: TLC’s Howard Lee on what’s hot, what’s not for the net

TLC’s president and general manager Howard Lee popped into the virtual Edinburgh TV Festival yesterday (Aug. 27) to talk about the network’s spin-offs, returnable series and branching out into new genres. Lee (pictured), ...
August 28, 2020

TLC’s president and general manager Howard Lee popped into the virtual Edinburgh TV Festival yesterday (Aug. 27) to talk about the network’s spin-offs, returnable series and branching out into new genres.

Lee (pictured), who joined the channel in 2008, has played an integral role in molding TLC into the No. 1 ranked network in primetime for women across all ad-supported cable. He oversees all aspects of TLC’s creative and business operations, including programming, production, development, digital and research for the domestic Discovery brand.

In a conversation with Deadline‘s Peter White, the veteran executive discussed working with his Discovery colleagues across multiple territories and what the programming slate looks like moving forward for the female-skewing network.

Here, Realscreen highlights some of the key takeaways from the session:

Monumental success and spin-offs 

Since its debut in January 2014, reality franchise 90 Day Fiancé has served as a ratings powerhouse for the Discovery-owned lifestyle where it’s recently helped drive TLC to its best quarter in the network’s history. The show’s continued success has also helped TLC place as the top network across all of TV on Sunday nights among W25-54, P25-54, and W18-49.

In the six years since launching, the flagship series – produced by New York’s Sharp Entertainment – has spawned nine separate spin-offs, creating what Lee regards as TLC’s “own Marvel Universe, of sorts”. Those spin-offs include 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days90 Day Fiancé: What Now?90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk and The Family Chantel, as well as the recently premiered 90 Day Fiancé: Self-QuarantinedB90 Strikes Back! and Darcey & Stacey.

“There’s probably one or two [spin-offs] that we’re actively working on,” Lee said. “We always really want to check in with our fans and viewers to ensure that we’re not getting past the tipping point of saturation, and that it’s something they really want to see. We’ve been really fortunate that they’re still finding these projects compelling.”

The Love Channel

The core purpose of 90 Day Fiancé, Lee explained, was to showcase individuals as they navigated the complexities of love and relationships. It’s a prime element that the lifestyle network has been seeking for moving forward in its programming, particularly if the program pitched is a docu-follow or social experiment show. The universal search for the “significant other” is territory the network is keen to dive into further.

“There has to be a hook in how that love is achieved,” Lee said. “We are looking for formats in any area — that could be docuseries, social experiment, it can be long-arced and serialized or possibly self-contained.

“If you think you have a terrific idea that’s only sustainable for two hours as an event show, or a major special, that’s fine too. That’s something we keep our eyes open for.”

For a pitch to make it to broadcast, a compelling cast of characters is a must, he stressed.

“We really look for people and talent on our shows who are very honest and transparent. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that’s a key ingredient for everything that we do at TLC.”

What’s working, what isn’t

TLC has become known over the years for its programming in the love and relationships, and family spaces, but the network has also been finding success in the medical genre, where series like Dr. Pimple Popper and My 600-lb Life have continuously managed to find big audiences.

And while the network “never wants to close the door on any idea”, Lee said there is a very specific list of what shows would work on his channel.

“We cover all these areas of relationships, family and medical, but maybe there’s an area we have not given enough thought to, so our door is always wide open,” he said. All that said, “I don’t know that we’d want a show that has an all-male cast. The female perspective is so critical, and the gender diversity about everything we have on our air is critical. I also don’t know that we’d really pursue anything that’s crime-driven on TLC either.”

And while the Discovery-backed channel has recently announced the return of fashion makeover hit What Not to Wear, which is still very much in development despite the enduring COVID-19 pandemic, Lee is not interested in diving much deeper into the fashion world.

“Makeover is a hard area when it pertains to fashion,” he said. “Fashion is something that’s very easily explored online and elsewhere, so often it is difficult to create episodic storylines around that. Commissioning wise, we would not want a flood of makeover or fashion shows.”

The same goes for the wedding genre, which is the home of one the network’s more tried and true franchises, Say Yes to the Dress.

“With weddings, it’s a harder area for us to commission in,” Lee explained. “We’ve found some of the ratings in that area haven’t been as high as we would want them to be. If we do ever look at a wedding idea it would have to be incredibly extreme. What is that story we’ve never seen before?”

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