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TLC Topper Going for the Bold

Jun 13, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Two months into the job, TLC Executive VP and General Manager David Abraham is making significant changes as he attempts to reinvigorate the network that calls itself “Life Unscripted.”

He most recently greenlighted four new series and canceled two existing shows.

Mr. Abraham said he isn’t worrying about the network’s on-air look or tagline or marketing in the face of a two-year ratings decline. He is focused on developing a spine of new shows that will continue to expand the Discovery Network-owned brand beyond the makeover genre for which it has become well known.

“This is a year of transition,” Mr. Abraham said in his first formal interview since joining the network. “The general direction we’re heading in is with the core values of TLC, but making it more diverse. Two to three years ago, the channel had a sort of urgency. Only in the past 24 months has it become limited to makeover series. Going into fourth quarter you’re going to start seeing some changes, [especially in] prime time.”

The new series include two titles by “Monster Garage” reality producer Thom Beers: “Pulpit Masters,” a talent contest in which contestants compete to become “the next great American preacher” (12 episodes); and “Small Mediums at Large,” in which five little people, including at least one clairvoyant, provide life-makeover guidance (10 episodes).

The other two new series license concepts from Mr. Abraham’s native Britain: “The Monastery,” a former BBC series, takes four young men and places them in a monastery (5 episodes, Tigress Productions). And in “One Week to Save a Marriage,” a relationship expert makes a last-ditch attempt to prevent a couple’s divorce (13 episodes, BBC Productions).

Though both have U.K. roots, Mr. Abraham stressed that he is not going to flood the network with overseas concepts. “I don’t intend to be a person who only works with U.K. producers,” he said. “I’ve been hugely impressed with the creativity of the U.S. outfits. For me, it’s about blending the best of all sources.”

Another common thread among the new shows is that two-“The Monastery” and “Pulpit Masters”-deal with religion, perhaps the only two religious reality shows on any major network. “‘The Monastery’ shows how people become spiritually aware,” Mr. Abraham said. “Religion is one of the new genres we’re looking at, along with parenting.”

The new titles are set for a first quarter 2006 premiere. Mr. Abraham has also canceled two home makeover series, “Clean Sweep” and “In a Fix.”

Before joining TLC in April, Mr. Abraham had managed Discovery’s nine U.K. networks since 2001. He filled a spot vacated in January by Roger Marmet. TLC had experienced rapid growth in 2002 and 2003 as signature series “Trading Spaces” became a cultural phenomenon and spawned dozens of imitators. But since then the audience has steadily declined, as flagging interest in makeover reality shows pulled down the network’s ratings by about 40 percent.

Last quarter, TLC averaged 775,000 prime-time viewers, down 34 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Before he left the network, Mr. Marmet acknowledged TLC relied too heavily on makeover series and began to emphasize expanding the brand to new genres, an effort that continues today.

Mr. Abraham is now saddled with the responsibility of turning around the network while maintaining its brand as a relatively soft-edged home for compelling nonfiction programming.

Last month Mr. Abraham announced the promotion of Sean Gallagher to senior VP of production and development. Last week he hired Debbie Adler Myers as senior executive producer of daytime and promoted Matt Gould to senior executive producer of factual series and specials.

Mr. Abraham described the changes as beefing up the network’s production team while improving the way the network interacts with producers.

Mr. Beers, whose “Pulpit” and “Small Mediums” were greenlighted by the new regime, said Mr. Abraham is on the right track. “They’re really looking for fresh breakout stuff,” Mr. Beers said. “Everybody was pitched [‘Pulpit Masters’] and were scared to death. I give him credit for taking chances. He and Sean are setting up TLC to be a bold, trend-setting network.”

“Small Mediums at Large” certainly fits the “bold” tag, which, along with “Pulpit,” would have been unimaginable on TLC last year. “We’re not doing anything that we’re going to embarrass anybody with,” said Mr. Beers.

For “Pulpit,” Mr. Beers is currently casting a panel of expert judges while preparing for a multicity casting tour. With “Small Mediums,” Mr. Beers said he conceived of the title first, then designed a concept around it.

“They’ve all overcome physical hardships to thrive in this world,” he said of the cast. “They’re compelling individuals and the perfect example of a little bit of tough love.”

TLC also recently announced “Going Hollywood,” in which showbiz hopefuls work production company jobs for the likes of Robert Evans and Kevin Spacey. At the upcoming Television Critics Association semiannual press tour in July, TLC tentatively plans to showcase “The Adam Carolla Project,” its upcoming home improvement show led by the former “Man Show” host.

Those new series, along with the previously announced tattoo parlor docu-soap “Miami Ink,” show a clear brand expansion, though whether a broader slate equals more viewers has yet to be determined.

“We’ve already made massive amounts of progress. … We’re in many new genres,” Mr. Abraham said. “My main priority is to ensure the oncoming slate is executed flawlessly.”