The Learning Channel (TLC) has changed its lineup a few times and appears, on the surface, to be somewhat diverse but there are a few common themes and trends among many shows on the channel. Many shows on TLC put the people and families of the show in a category of “the other” and create a spectacle out of their situations. TLC separates them from the audience by emphasizing some form of excess or extreme in their lives or by emphasizing a deviation from the cultural norm. Another common theme among shows that keeps the audience attached to the shows in a way is the idea of family.
“A distinctly powerful medium, television provides sustained exposure to a constant set of images that help shape our perceptions of the world” (Hopson, p. 441). TLC is using this medium to teach us about how (atypical) people live and take us on a journey with them. In video on the casting page of their website TLC’s Vice President of Talent Development and Casting, Andrew Strauser says that they are looking for “new and extraordinary everyday people,” that audiences love “authentic personalities with a lot of heart” and “just genuine people we want to follow on a journey.” That first part, “new and extraordinary everyday people” seems to be somewhat contradictory because “everyday people” tends to mean boring, typical or average but then they throw the word extraordinary in there. “Extraordinary boring people” doesn’t quite make sense, however they are trying to capture the idea that they want people who aren’t exactly “normal” but “normal” enough so that the audience can still relate and fall in love with them. In Hopson’s (2008) article about race and reality TV (RTV), he brings up the questions, “what does RTV really teach us?” and, “are we gaining a true appreciation for all people, or are we learning to minimize the Other as a source of entertainment?” (p. 445). These apply to TLC shows as well as shows with a racial component because the people in TLC shows are often a cultural minority or there is a stigma associated with their situations or lifestyles.
TLC has a few obvious groupings that their shows fit into. The first has to do with subcultures. They have had a few different shows focused on the Gypsy culture including “My big fat Gypsy Wedding” (which also fits in with their wedding based shows) and “Gypsy Sisters.” These shows explore the Gypsy lifestyle and tend to focus on how it differs from “mainstream” or “normal” culture. In one episode the girls are shown to be so concerned with their tans that they rub motor oil on themselves to speed up the tanning process, they are often shown “bedazzling” something with a lot of rhinestones, and they spend a lot of time dealing with the drama of young Gypsy girls running off to be with a boy because they are not allowed to date. The families in these shows are pretty close (even with all of the fighting), and don’t appear to be much different from too many “normal” families but TLC highlights and dramatizes the small stereotypical differences to separate them from the “norm,” to create a spectacle out of their lives and to see them as “others.” TLC ties this show in with the idea of excess too in their focus on the extravagant, bedazzled, monstrous wedding dresses that seemingly ALL Gypsy wives must have if they are to be considered a “true Gypsy.” Other shows that follow this theme are “Breaking Amish”, “Return to Amish”, “Alaskan Women Looking for Love”, “My Five Wives”, and “Sister Wives”.
Another grouping of shows involves the family structure. The shows: “My Five Wives”, “Sister Wives”, “19 Kids & Counting”, “Jon & Kate plus 8”, “Quints by Surprise”, “Little People, Big World”, and “The Little Couple” all focus on what makes the families different from the “American dream” family, or how they are atypical. “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple” are completely “normal” families except for they are, as the titles suggest, little. These shows focus on the difficulties they encounter from living in a world designed for people much taller than themselves. The Duggars in “19 Kids & Counting” are also a fairly typical family, same with “Jon & Kate plus 8” and even “My 5 Wives”. These shows have the element of excess in that they have significantly more family members than “normal” families which requires significantly more resources. They use this excess to separate them from the audience and create a spectacle out of them. In “19 Kids & Counting” they focus on things such as how much more food they consume and even print on the screen the quantities to emphasize how extreme their lives are, thus separating them even further from the audience.
A third category of TLC shows focus on excessive behaviors. This includes, “My strange addiction”, “Extreme Cheapskates”, “Extreme Couponing”, “My Crazy Obsession”, “Hoarding: Buried Alive”, and “My 600-lb Life”. These shows blatantly make a spectacle out of the person’s excessive behavior. Even the titles point out that these people are not “normal.” “Strange”, “extreme”, and “crazy” all indicate a deviation from what is socially acceptable, and hoarding isn’t socially acceptable either. Most of these shows frame the behavior as necessary, as a disease, or as something out of the control of the person. Doing this allows the audience to keep an emotional connection with that person. In “Extreme Cheapskates” and “Extreme Couponing” the person or family that is being overly frugal almost always has a heart breaking story that involves starting these obsessive behaviors as a way to keep food on the table and essentially stay alive. Addictions and Hoarding are framed as psychological disorders that are out of the control of the person which can allow the audience to feel sympathetic towards them instead of being completely disgusted. So while TLC is exposing these people as a spectacle and putting them into the group of “other,” they are also creating something for the audience to recognize as “normal”, something to relate to.
While these are not all of the shows on TLC, these are a good portion of them and some not mentioned may have aspects that fit into these categories. From early on, “what TLC execs learned was how to capitalize on viewers’ fascination with following people as they got married, had a baby, endured a makeover — lived life” (Douglas, 2012). They are making a profit from creating a spectacle out of people’s ordinary lives. While learning about how people (different from ourselves individually) live can be enlightening, the way TLC frames their shows as excessive creates a spectacle out of their lives, separates them from the audience and puts them into a category of “other.”
Douglas, D. (2012, August 19). Change or die: Is TLC approaching a tipping point with its reality shows?. Washington Post. Retrieved April 27, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/change-or-die-is-tlc-approaching-a-tipping-point-with-its-reality-shows/2012/08/16/541066f8-c9df-11e1-a740-17536be91cc6_story.html
Hopson, M. C. (2008). “Now Watch Me Dance”: Responding to Critical Observations, Constructions, and Performances of Race on Reality Television. Critical Studies In Media Communication, 25(4), 441-446. doi:10.1080/15295030802327782