NEW YORK (AP) — Stepping away from the stage after outlining TLC's future plans one recent morning, Marjorie Kaplan used the phrase "freak show" before anyone else could. It's an image the network chief wants TLC to stay away from.
Yes, Honey Boo Boo is in the rear view mirror. The Gosselin children still appear occasionally, but there's no more divorce drama with Jon and Kate. TLC's latest star, Whitney Thore of "My Big Fat Fabulous Life," is someone to root for.
The network's shows fit broadly under an umbrella of family, style and life milestones, and Kaplan's presentation exuded calmness and warmth.
"It's kind of a relief to go back to something with a sense of purpose," Kaplan, a veteran Discovery Communications executive who also oversees Animal Planet, said in a later interview. "The further the brand went from being The Learning Channel, the harder it got for people to see the purpose."
Brands are important to Kaplan, who found it frustrating that while studies showed people tended to like TLC's programs, they had no sense of what TLC stood for.
Ask about TLC a couple of years ago, and the first image to pop into people's heads would have been Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, a ham from rural Georgia prone to catchphrases like "a dolla makes me holla." TLC surfed the wave of that cultural phenomenon until it crashed, cancelled last fall with a new season already in the can after reports surfaced that Thompson's mother was dating a man with a criminal past.
An attention-getting show like "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is a boon in ratings and revenue. The risk is whether its cheesiness — and the bad publicity when things go south — take a toll on a network's reputation.
The bigger danger is that hits that burn bright tend to burn out fast, leaving a struggling network in the ashes, said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
"People are not deciding whether or not to watch a program based on a network's reputation or bad publicity," he said. "They're watching the shows because they like to watch them."
TLC's ratings have been fairly steady, at least in comparison to the steep drops seen by other cable networks lately. It is averaging 919,000 viewers in prime-time this season, down from 1.05 million four years ago, according to the Nielsen company. The slip is a little more pronounced among the desirable demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds.
"I do think it's time for them to get another franchise show that they can build around," said Brad Adgate, researcher for Horizon Media, "and that's easier said than done."
The experience of Honey Boo Boo did make for some interesting meetings with prospective show producers, not all of them welcome.
"We've had people pitch us with crazy people," Kaplan said. "We've said we don't feel comfortable with where that show is going to go."
Health problems that led to Thore's obesity made her an interesting character for "My Big Fat Fabulous Life, but the show works because of her outsized personality. The network has done well with series on unusual families, like the Duggans of "19 Kids and Counting," and the stars of "Little People, Big World." In May, TLC is premiering a series on the 14-member Willis clan, who have a country music act that was featured on NBC's "America's Got Talent."
Other family-oriented series in the works are "Long Lost Family," about people trying to reunite with family or friends they'd grown apart from, and "I Got You Babies," about first-time parents.
The makeover series "Love, Lust or Run" brought TLC back into the fashion genre. The upcoming "Dare to Wear" and "Brides Gone Styled" attempt to gently pull back people from their own bad taste.
A new dating series, "Married By Mom and Dad," follows people so unlucky in love they're willing to let their parents set them up.
To Kaplan, the connective thread for TLC series is they ultimately have heart. In discussions about a new slogan, she was almost sheepish to suggest "everyone needs a little TLC," because it seemed so obvious.
The network can't become so heartwarming that it loses its edge, however. TLC jumped on a hot TV trend when it announced in March that it would make a new series, "All That Jazz," about transgender teen Jazz Jennings and her family.
"This is a world without judgment," Kaplan said. "We put our arms around everybody."
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder