Last November, The Soup parodied TLC's brand of programming by creating a show titled "Fertile Little Tattooed Pageant Parents Who Enjoy Baking," mocking everything the network is seemingly obsessed with. It was funny, in part, because it was true.
TLC has long since dismissed its original identity, The Learning Channel, in favor of a mix of quasi-wholesome reality programming that revolves around the lives of various families. As Scott Collins of the Los Angeles Times writes, "Heartland values are indeed what TLC pushes, carving out a profitable niche in a reality TV marketplace otherwise filled with sex-drenched youth soaps ( MTV's "Jersey Shore") or aspirational voyeurism (HGTV's entire programming block)." The network focuses mainly on family dynamics, whether it's the exploration of life with multiple children, as with Kate Plus 8, life as a little person, as shown in Little People, Big World, or with the inner-workings of a family business, as with Cake Boss. With the exception of a few true-crime programs (a recent addition is centered around the lives of mall cops) or explorations of mental illness and addiction (the network's knockoffs of A&E's Hoarders and Intervention) the lives presented on TLC are warm and sunny and filled with inoffensive adventures meant to appeal to middle class viewers.
But there's something fundamentally dishonest about the network's cutesy-poo approach to celebrating the "reality" of middle-class lives: the network continues to push Kate Plus 8 as an adorable look into the lives of 8 children, as opposed to something exploitative and creepy, considering that their parents have spent much of the last year and half in the tabloids, with all of their sordid secrets being revealed. There also seems to be a disconnect from the fact that the Gosselins currently live in a 1.3 million dollar home, and there's something fairly tragic about the fact that the original Jon and Kate Plus 8, funded and promoted by TLC, even—and perhaps especially—during the Gosselin's incredibly messy divorce, was the reason behind the family's descent into tabloid hell to begin with. It's almost as if the network has been standing in the corner with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears since 2009, avoiding the actual reality behind their reality show: the show's original website, showing a smiling Gosselin family, is still up, with only a small link screaming "Hot!! The Kids Are Back!!" giving any indication that Kate and the eight are now starring in their own show.
And though TLC attempts to market itself as a network for the average American, there is an aspirational quality to its programming that is not too far from the ridiculous values pushed by MTV's The Hills or The City. The Gosselin's aforementioned million-dollar home, for example, or the gowns shown on Say Yes To The Dress, or the attempts to move up, style wise, via a $5000 line of credit courtesy of What Not To Wear, or the insane amounts of money spent on—and won in—child beauty pageants by Toddlers & Tiaras participants, who are given a campy, sweet advertising campaign by the network. Money is the unspoken "heartland value" in TLC's programming, helping people improve their lives and their homes in ways that might not seem as obnoxious as the ways portrayed on The Hills, but are still important, in terms of presenting an image that comes across as both glamorous and casual.
On a recent episode of Say Yes To The Dress, for example, a bride battled her firefighter husband to be able to purchase a third wedding gown, simply because she had to have three, and the audience was presumably supposed to be tickled by her Bridezilla (a title she applied to herself, mind you) antics, even as she went through the process of having to wait until her credit card was cleared to actually purchase the dress. The sad and scary subtext, that this woman is maxing out her credit cards in order to buy a completely unnecessary third dress for $1999, was glossed over in favor of an "Oh, that crazy Bridezilla!" edit. Perhaps that is TLC's view of "heartland values." Or perhaps it speaks to a desire by middle-class viewers to watch programs that show all of the positives of spending, or having 8 children, or running your own business, or putting your kid in a beauty pageant, without actually stopping to consider the realities that can often make such situations difficult. It's a value system built on denial and lies. At least Heidi and Spencer are up front about their motivations.
It is fitting, then, that Sarah Palin, who is well-versed in claiming an attachment to one lifestyle while actively living another, is the channel's newest star, set to debut her own reality show/Alaskan documentary series that TLC President Eileen O'Neill admits is fairly hard to categorize: "There's nothing on TV, honestly, that we can say this is like People have asked, 'Is it a nature documentary? Is it a travelogue? Is it a docusoap? Is it a reality show?' It's going to have pieces of a lot of things people are familiar with, but there's no one label." One can safely assume that Palin's program will be unfailingly positive, warm, and marketed as a cheerful, fun look into the life of yet another "average American" leading an "extraordinary life," and the parts of her reality she doesn't think will sell will be, much like TLC's other programs, conveniently edited out and made to seem as if they don't exist.
[TLC Courts The Heartland [LATimes]