Before Trading Spaces arrived on Saturday nights, an uninspiring half-million viewers tuned in to TLC's Human Beings documentary series. These days, with its redecorating series on fire, more like 4 million human beings flock to TLC on Saturday nights.
For any cable channel, a hit can be a blessing and a curse. A high-rated show showers its network with buzz, new viewers, fresh ad dollars. But the temptation to be ruled by the prized program is hard to avoid. A&E's franchise series Biography
was big enough to spawn knockoffs all over cable and still overshadows everything else on A&E's air. Since Behind the Music's peak, VH1 has tried mightily to find its next big show—and has repeatedly fallen short.
With Trading Spaces, TLC has found the hit that cable nets yearn for. Now the challenge is to keep from morphing into the Trading Spaces
channel. "We're not going to fall into the trap of Trading Spaces-like programs every night of the week," said TLC Acting General Manager Roger Marmat. "It will back you into a corner the minute those shows start to be diminished."
That doesn't mean TLC is abandoning lifestyle shows. Rather, the network is containing them. Two fresh lifestyle shows will arrive in March.
"The formula with Trading Spaces
works, but they are using a twist," Starcomm Worldwide Director of National TV Research Sam Armando.
On Faking It, people with no experience will try to step into highly skilled jobs—say, a short-order cook masquerading as a chef in a four-star restaurant. What Not To Wear
is a style-makeover show with a $5,000 fashion-improvement budget. TLC will offer a sneak preview of What Not To Wear
on Jan. 18.
TLC's mix also includes documentaries and male-skewing reality shows like last weekend's re-creation of ancient horse racing, Chariot Races.
TLC is now a top-10-rated cable network, actually pushing ahead of the mothership Discovery Channel in recent months. Its prime time marks were up 38% in November to a 1.1 average rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. For the month, TLC averaged about 900,000 households per night. Trading Spaces, which airs at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET Saturdays, regularly ranks among cable's top-10 shows each week.
"This is the time to try something new," Armando said. "They have the audience there."
So far, Trading Spaces
has been a strong lead-in for new programs, a litmus test for any hit. While You Were Out, introduced as its lead-out last summer, regularly collects more than a 2.0 rating.
Come February, While You Were Out
will move to Fridays. "Now we'll have two solid nights for lifestyle programming," Marmat said. Either Faking It
or What Not To Wear
will follow it on Friday nights. The other will air after Trading Spaces
Sprucing up Trading Spaces
is just as important as scheduling moves and new shows. That means more celebrity episodes, live shows, another college tour and maybe even remodeling houseboats for a change. "A year from now," Marmat said, "the specials will help spike both coverage and viewership."
With lifestyle shows tending to skew female (Trading Spaces
draws an unusually mixed crowd ranging from older men to tween girls), TLC targets men on Wednesday and Thursday nights to balance out viewership. Shows like Junkyard Wars
and Full Metal Challenge
score well with male viewers.
"We're not as beholden to one program as it may seem," Marmat noted.
TLC makes about 60 episodes of Trading Spaces
per year. The show also airs in fringe and on Sunday afternoons. It has ordered up to 13 episodes each of Faking It
and What Not To Wear, both adaptations of BBC shows. (Discovery Communications has a programming partnership with the BBC, which funnels proven ideas to all the Discovery nets.)
In developing future shows, Marmat said, "we're going to have to be smarter and react to [ideas] on paper as well." That means more in-house development and working with American producers.
Development is moving in that direction. Marmat's team is putting the finishing touches on a few new lifestyle pilots; one is a BBC show, and two others are homegrown ideas.