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In many ways, "Jon & Kate" set today's tone at TLC. During the show's five seasons — it was canceled last year — the network rolled out a string of family-centric docu-series, including "19 Kids & Counting" and "Sister Wives." Each show delved into atypical families.
"Because there are so many media outlets, they needed to find a niche," said Patricia A. Williamson, a professor in the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University. "TLC has reinvented itself so many times but seems to have found its stride."
In reinventing itself, TLC has come under fire for airing shows such as "Toddlers & Tiaras" and "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" that critics say are voyeuristic and border on exploitation.
"Those are worlds that exist with or without our camera there," O'Neill said. "We're not in the business of disrupting people's lives. We approach all of our productions as partnerships, so there is a lot of healthy back and forth between our producers and our talent."
Winter says the full spectrum of TLC's lineup is "in sync with what our audience expects from us."
Many of TLC's competitors have embraced a similar view of building their schedules around common themes that in some ways speak to a brand identity. Bravo is where you go for fashion, food and to gawk at women with too much time and money. We TV is where you head to see over-indulged brides behaving badly.
Williamson says networks with heavy concentrations in that type of format are challenged to keep it fresh.
"With some of these docu-reality series, they'll be hits for a season or two and start to wane in popularity," she said. "It seems that TLC has realized that and has been cycling through new ideas."