Perhaps no other network exemplifies the perils and profits of embracing reality-TV programming than TLC. Formerly known as The Learning Channel, TLC has, in recent years, gained huge audiences — and criticism — for reality shows, such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and 19 Kids and Counting.
But as TLC has been reeling from scandal, most notably the revelation that 19 Kids star Josh Duggar molested his sisters, which prompted advertisers to flee, the network is stressing a new message. “Our shows need to have an element of OMG, but have to deliver on the heart,” Nancy Daniels, general manager of the channel since 2013, told Fortune in a recent interview.
On Sunday evening, TLC is airing an hour-long, commercial-free documentary about child abuse, “Breaking the Silence.” “I think what became overwhelmingly clear to us is how prevalent [childhood sexual abuse] is, and how nobody talks about it, and how there’s an opportunity here to help educate people about this,” Daniels said. (Marjorie Kaplan, head of parent company Discovery Communications’ international content, made similar comments to the AP last month, saying she was “completely unaware” of how prevalent child abuse was until the Duggar scandal.)
TLC has been under fire for its handling of that scandal in part because it waited nearly two months before cancelling 19 Kids, its most popular show with 3.2 million viewers. Whether the documentary will quell that criticism remains to be seen; it includes footage of two of Josh Duggar’s victims, his sister Jessa and Jill Duggar, attending a workshop on child sexual abuse.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and the abuse-prevention organization Darkness to Light (D2L) helped produce the documentary, which features the story of Erin Merryn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an advocate for mandatory abuse-prevention education in schools.
“It’s a way to do damage control,” says Brad Adgate, a TV analyst with Horizon Media. Indeed, as The Hollywood Reporter noted, the cancellation of 19 Kids led Discovery to take a $19 million restructuring charge. But Adgate says he doesn’t believe TLC is “culpable. They saw this family that looked really squeaky clean and I think they were caught as surprised as everyone else when these details were revealed.”
This isn’t the first time TLC has been in hot water, though. The network canceled another one of its hugely popular reality series, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, in October 2014 after the tabloids exploded with allegations — subsequently confirmed — that the co-star, June Shannon, was dating a convicted sex offender, who had abused her daughter.
Still, this hasn’t really hurt TLC’s bottom line too much. The advertisers who pulled support from 19 Kids are still on board for other TLC programs, Variety notes. TLC is projected to pull in approximately $311.3 million in 2015, according to market-research firm SNL Kagan, up a bit from 2014’s $308.9 million.
The network continues to attract viewers for fare, like Little People, Big World (a family of little people), which is now in its 10th season. Yet the network still needs to fill the hole left by the departure of the lucrative Duggar brand.
The channel is launching a slew of new shows this fall, including Suddenly Royal, premiering September 9 and featuring a blue-collar Maryland man who discovered that he is the rightful heir to the throne of Britain’s Isle of Man. The show follows the self-declared king as he takes his family there to start a new regal life.
A bit more outrageous is Labor Games (TLC aired a few episodes last winter), which is a game show set in the delivery room of a hospital. The show ambushes couples while they’re in the early stages of labor and asks if they’d like to be in a spontaneous pre-delivery game show. Sounds crazy but, according to Daniels, “It’s actually kind of sweet and funny and heartwarming.”
As far as preventing another Josh Duggar, a reality-show star with a dark side revealed too late, there doesn’t seem to be a new approach. Daniels said there’s only so much TLC can do. “We always do background checks and do everything we can to find out everything we can about anybody we’re putting on air,” Daniels said. “But that doesn’t always reveal everything.”