A year ago, TLC was a network in crisis, the tabloids were wading through circulation declines, and Jon and Kate Gosselin were just married people starring in a successful basic-cable reality show.
Today, only Jon and Kate seem to be having problems.
Driven by the marital discord of its principals, the scandal-fueled “Jon & Kate Plus 8” has become, to quote media mogul Sam Zell, the “Viagra” for the flaccid performance of both print and TV.
"Jon & Kate" has put TLC more on the map than ever, providing a huge promotional platform for the network to launch a new slate of shows and boosting the weekly circulation of celebrity magazines like US Weekly and People by millions.
The channel finished May up 24 percent year to year in total viewers, and 15 percent in the women 18-49 demo.
“If you have the chance to lift other boats in the ocean, that’s a great opportunity,” says Eileen O’Neill, president and general manager of TLC, who was brought into the job last summer by parent company Discovery Communications to fix the post-“Trading Spaces” ratings malaise that had overcome the channel.
During the early part of the decade, TLC had carved a niche for itself as a pioneer of lifestyle oriented nonfiction series, offering up successful shows including “Trading Spaces,” “A Wedding Story” and “A Baby Story.”
In August of last year, reacting to a 13 percent year-to-year viewership decline for TLC, Discovery CEO David Zaslav moved O’Neill from her president post at Planet Green to take over for Angela Shapiro-Mathes, hoping to change the channel’s “creative and organizational direction.”
And even before the Gosselin marriage became a national obsession, O’Neill had TLC — which touts about 90 million subscribers — back on the tracks, with the network up in total viewers for six consecutive months.
Then, during the week of May 11, US Weekly reported that Jon Gosselin allegedly had strayed.
Preceded by consecutive US Weekly cover stories — we’re up to six weeks in a row now — “Jon & Kate” kicked off its fifth cycle on Memorial Day drawing prime time’s biggest audience that evening, 9.8 million viewers, far and away an all-time record draw for TLC.
While managing a tabloid frenzy has been a bit of a hassle for the channel, the resulting ratings bonanza has helped the network immeasurably in launching the slate of character-driven, wedding-themed nonfiction shows that have been gestated in the 10 months with O’Neill at the helm.
Leading out of “Jon & Kate’s” record-breaking premiere, for example, the series introduction of “Cake Boss” — which follows around renowned Hoboken wedding-cake baker Buddy Valastro — drew 3.2 million viewers, making it the biggest series premiere in the channel’s history.
Likewise, “The Little Couple” — which tracks the lives of a pair of diminutive newlyweds — also got off to a hot start a night later, posting double-digit ratings increases for its time period.
While TLC probably can’t expect 10 million to consistently turn out for “Jon & Kate” each week — on Monday, back-to-back week-two installments averaged 5.7 million viewers, still TV’s top draw for women of all ages — the show should stay hot enough to help out with several other upcoming series launches, including the Kelly Ripa-produced “Masters of the Reception.”
“Certainly, the extensive viewership of ‘Jon & Kate’ has turbocharged us,” says O’Neill, who has committed to 40 episodes of the channel’s most popular series but, like everyone else, admits she has no idea if the principal characters will still be living under the same roof when the season is done.
Celebrity magazines like People and US Weekly have been turbocharged by “Jon & Kate,” as well. US Weekly, which had averaged about 860,000 in weekly newsstand sales last year during a better economy, has seen its numbers spike each week that it’s gone Gosselin on its cover.
After its initial May 11-issue foray drew a million newsstand sales, the tabloid has returned to the well each week, with the recent issue coverlined “Inside Jon’s Prison” moving about 1.3 million issues.
Rival People has also gotten in on the action, running a plaintiff Kate on its May 25 cover with the line, “We Might Split Up.” That issue sold about 1.7 million copies, a sizable increase over the 1.4 million moved the week before for an issue featuring Bristol Palin on the cover.