x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

From learning channel to weirdness: the evolution of TLC

How TLC left the classroom behind to strike ratings gold as TV’s hangout for human oddities.

Melissa, right, who weights 673 pounds is featured on the TLC show My 600 Pound Life. Courtesy TLC
Melissa, right, who weights 673 pounds is featured on the TLC show My 600 Pound Life. Courtesy TLC

Even Darwin would have a hard time believing the evolution of TLC – from its serious-minded educational network days of the 1970s to its current incarnation as the telly’s carnival sideshow of humanity’s oddities and follies.

Yet, like the pretzel, this network wasn’t always so twisted. Co-founded in 1972 as the “informative and instructional” Appalachian Community Service Network (ACSN) by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, it was later privatised in 1980 into The Learning Channel as “A Place for Learning Minds”.

Sadly, niche educational shows pull paltry niche ratings, and so, with its moniker chopped to TLC to distance itself from its dreary pedagogical roots, over the past decade its proprietor, Discovery Communications, has gleefully discovered the superior ratings and fiscal joys of reality programming.

And let’s be clear here: we’re not TV snobs. TLC can be mad fun. Nothing tarts up a tedious night at the telly like the trotting out of 600-pounders, hoarders, bigamists, obsessive-compulsives, cheapskates, gypsy bridezillas and vapour-rub eaters.

Different from normal

“Virtually everything that works in today’s American entertainment, the legendary circus showman PT Barnum had already figured out how to make money on in the 19th century,” says Robert J Thompson, a professor and the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“What we used to think of as the ‘freak show’, in Barnum’s time, the biggest star of all was General Tom Thumb, a little person. Then you had all the people who were excessively tall, with various birth abnormalities. People are naturally interested in seeing things that are different from the normal.”

After the 1960s, however, the notion of the “freak show” went completely out of fashion. “While it used to satisfy a certain appetite by showing physically unusual human beings in a circus sideshow or dime museum,” adds Thompson, “now we get a similar kind of thing – but it’s done on places like TLC.”

Still, one can’t help but appreciate that there are many things we have, indeed, managed to learn in the first month since TLC joined the OSN line-up here in UAE.

The shows

• Hoarding: Buried Alive – One million cockroaches can indeed coexist with a human being without any hard feelings between either party (although the bugs often wish he would tidy up the place a bit).

• Long Island Medium – She may be, literally, from Hicksville – but every soul apparently is queued up and keeps medium Theresa Caputo on afterlife speed-dial on the off-chance she may bump into one of their living progeny.

• Little People, Big World – While families here are sweet and tackle the real problems folk of all heights face in their daily lives, we know Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion Lannister, would sic a dragon on the producers for exploiting his peers.

• Body Bizarre – The world’s fattest child, an 8-year-old girl, weighs as much as a heavyweight boxer. (But wouldn’t you like to punch the parent who put her on TV?)

• My 600 Pound Life – Not to be too morbid, obesity pun intended, but all it takes is the ingestion of 7,000 calories a day for years on end and you, too, can be a TV star.

• I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant – Intelligence and common sense are not universally conferred upon all mums-to-be.

Shame and fame

“The idea of going on a TV show and saying: ‘I like to eat gross stuff in my house,’ or ‘I’m a hoarder,’ or whatever, is not the big deal it used to be,” says Thompson. “There isn’t the shame attached to this stuff any more – and I think that’s probably a good thing.”

“Generally, we’re wired to like to be the centre of attention. It would be nice if you can be the centre of attention because everybody loves the way you sing or play basketball or write poems. But, if you can be the centre of attention because everybody’s curious about the strange thing TLC is paying attention to – it’s better than nothing.”

artslife@thenational.ae