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TLC’s Next GM Will Have Short Learning Curve

1/30/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

TLC general manager Roger Marmet had been gearing up to make over his ratings-challenged network and its flagging signature show, Trading Spaces.

But Marmet ended up as part of the makeover with his abrupt exit last week. The task of leading TLC out of its viewership nosedive now falls on Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks U.S., and whomever he picks to replace Marmet.

TLC was once the ratings overachiever in Discovery Communications Inc.’s empire. But its formerly hot marquee show, Trading Spaces, has aged, and the network’s ratings are on a downward spiral.

It’s a pattern that’s been seen before, to varying degrees. A network relies on a single hit or category past its expiration date, or long enough to see copycats flood the genre, then has to rebuild not only the show but a lineup. ABC’s overexposure of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a textbook case of this folly. A&E Network, which once relied on Biography as its cornerstone, was forced to branch out into new kinds of programming.

Cognizant of the problem, Marmet had a rather risky renovation of both Trading Spaces and the network in the works, including plans to overhaul and broaden the lineup.

Days before his exit last week, TLC let out the news that the perky and popular Trading Spaces host, Paige Davis, was leaving the show this spring. The program, which began in 2000, was to transition to a “host-less” format and pursue “a new creative direction.”

Marmet recently told TV critics in Hollywood that TLC would stake out new turf, moving beyond its usual home-improvement fare. He described plans to debut shows on such far-reaching topics as finance, real estate, law enforcement, family ties and magic — and to launch a dozen new primetime series this year.

One of them, Town Haul, premiered Jan. 22 to strong numbers. The program, featuring Trading Spaces’ designer Genevieve Gorder, is described as bringing “a modern-day barn raising” to small towns, lending a hand to communities, starting with the Catskills community of Jeffersonville, N.Y.

Town Haul’s premiere success couldn’t save Marmet, TLC’s permanent chief the past two years.

“Billy wanted to take the channel into a different creative direction,” said David Leavy, DCI’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications. “Roger agreed, and he resigned.”

Marmet — one of the few network chiefs Campbell hadn’t replaced since joining Discovery in 2002 — couldn’t be reached for comment.

INTERNAL CANDIDATE

As for Marmet’s replacement, Leavy said, “We have a very strong internal candidate and we hope to have an announcement shortly.”

Jane Root — Discovery Channel’s general manager, who is about to give birth — had expressed an interest in also running TLC, according to sources. Others are speculating that Sean Gallagher, a Discovery Channel program veteran recently named TLC’s vice president of development, will get the slot.

If it is Gallagher, TLC could take a turn toward what some Discovery insiders derisively call “Tattoo TV”: Shows like American Chopper and Monster Garage, male-targeted programs that are cornerstones of Discovery Channel’s once nature-oriented lineup.

Whoever succeeds Marmet has lots of work to do. Turning around a network’s ratings is a Herculean task.

Viewing for even the biggest hits, like Trading Spaces, can fade over time, especially if shows are not refreshed or are overexposed on a network.

TLC’s ratings decline has been exacerbated because its home-improvement niche has been flooded with competitors, including shows like ABC’s hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, with Trading Spaces alum Ty Pennington, and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

On top of that, TLC has depended heavily over the years on multiple plays of Trading Spaces. “They were milking the cow,” as one programmer said.

The cow ran dry. Last year, ratings for Saturday-night plays of the show dropped 45%, to a 1.1 from 2003’s 2.0, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Turner Research. In January, the show’s ratings dropped 33%, to a 1.4, versus the same month last year.

That took a toll on TLC’s overall viewership. In primetime last year, the network dropped 27%, to a 0.8 from a 1.1, according to Nielsen data supplied by the Disney ABC Cable Networks Group. In total-day counts, TLC slipped 17%, to a 0.5 from a 0.6.

That trend hasn’t abated this year. In January in primetime, TLC declined 36%, to a 0.7.

Trading Spaces started out as a daytime show about five years ago, and served the network well in its transformation from The Learning Channel, bought by DCI in 1991, into a more viewer-friendly service.

“It was a not just a signature show, but a show that turned that network around, because probably up until then, it was The Learning Channel and it was a very different kind of network,” said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for Viacom Inc.’s cable networks, film and publishing. “With one show, [TLC] became hip and it became very contemporary. Since then, they’ve added a lot of shows that have enhanced that brand equity.”

A LIGHT SPIN

Trading Spaces — which invites neighbors to redo a room in each other’s home with the help of professional designers — was modeled on the British show Changing Rooms. It put a new lighter spin on traditional home-improvement shows.

“It was an innovative kind of reality show, kind of the entertainment version of This Old House, with a lot of comedy and a likeable case and a lot of interplay and almost a party atmosphere,” said Tim Brooks, TV historian and Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research. “It also fit in very well with their brand as a network.”

TLC took the “gutsy” step of moving Trading Spaces to primetime Saturday nights, and the show took off, according to Brooks.

In the show’s third season, spanning 2002 to 2003, its originals averaged a 3.3 rating, and peaked with one 3.7 in February 2003. It was downhill from there, ratings-wise.

Observers say TLC erred on several fronts in the way it handled Trading Spaces.

“Veteran shows age, and as part of the aging process they start to decline in ratings,” said Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services for Carat USA Inc. “So you always have to be working on something new, and have it waiting in the wings, and groom it to have it take over as the next great TLC show.”

NEEDED REFRESHING

Several programmers said TLC should have made more of an effort to refresh Trading Spaces to ward off the ratings slide.

“Unlike dramas that get planted and thrive over the long haul — the Law & Orders and the CSIs and the Gunsmokes, which have very long runs — reality shows aren’t like that,” Brooks said. “Rather than do something daring and supplement Trading Spaces when it was at its peak with something that went in a different direction, they cloned it with things that looked just like it.

“That’s very dangerous to do, because you look like a one-trick pony. … You’re left in the dust by people who have come up with things that are newer and fresher.”

In addition, observers said that the TLC made the mistake of relying too heavily on the show, repeating it often — the classic overkill error ABC made with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

“We’ve all seen what happens when you over-depend on a show because you know it’s a strong performer,” Frank said.

Added Brooks, “It’s a classic case of overexposure. … Even when they came up with other shows, like What [Not] to Wear, they looked like the same show, too.”

In a prepared statement early last week, before Marmet’s departure, TLC said it was revamping Trading Spaces to a format with no hosts.

“We believe that this new creative direction will enable the show to be more spontaneous, focus more on the homeowners and designers, and create alternative home trades in different cities and on opposite coasts,” TLC said in a prepared statement, which also wished Davis well.

TABLOID PICKUPS

Her position probably wasn’t helped by the fact that she’s been fodder for lurid reports in New York City’s tabloid newspapers during the past six months. Davis made headlines when she reportedly flashed her thong at an AIDS fundraiser last summer. Most recently, there was Internet-spread gossip about Davis being in a sexy homemade video, which never materialized.

Several industry observers questioned whether Trading Spaces can be revived. Brooks put the odds at “1,000 to 1.”

A big part of the show’s appeal was Davis, according to Brill.

“She’s had a following for all these years,” Brill said. “Where would The Apprentice be if Donald Trump and his ugly hair wasn’t there to fire people?”

Not all veteran hit shows drop in the ratings, like Trading Spaces.

A Turner Research analysis found that USA Network’s Monk and The Dead Zone, Comedy Central’s South Park, and FX’s Nip/Tuck were all up in the household ratings during their most-recent seasons. By contrast, Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, FX’s The Shield and MTV: Music Television’s The Osbournes, like Trading Spaces, were down.

September