On TLC, Television Studies, and the Specter of the Recent Past

October 27, 2012
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About two weeks ago, the website Buzzfeed published The Weird, Weird History of TLC. Lifted more or less from TLC’s Wikipedia entry, the article recounts, primarily through a slideshow of images, how the network was founded in 1972 as a joint initiative of NASA and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, was then privatized in 1980, and became a commercial network that aired educational programming. In the late 1990s, the channel “started shifting focus” toward lifestyle, illustrated in the article with a promotional photo of Trading Spaces (2000-2008). “Which brings us to today…” the article finishes, drolly ending with screen shots of TLC’s more salacious current fare, including glass-eating compulsives on My Strange Addiction (2010-), train-wreck parenting on Jon and Kate Plus 8 (2008-2011), and enfant terrible au courant Honey Boo Boo.

History as Internet Virality

Buzzfeed is a site geared towards generating viral success, producing content that focuses on current events and celebrity gossip in an ironic mode. It traffics primarily in images and memes rather than text, maximizes shareability via a dashboard of buttons to pin and post on social networks, and it makes statistics about the article’s viral spread (called “social lift”) available on the article page itself. This article appeared alongside such other trenchant Buzzfeed pieces as 27 Reasons Why Kids Are Actually the Worst and This Baby Is Not Into Meows. What struck me about this particular piece of web writing is the fact that it was doing television history, although in a format whose conventions are geared towards linear trajectories, simplicity over complexity, and images over text. History as meme is the logic here. Of course, there is a long line of communications artifacts that have roots in government initiatives, including the internet, television technology (not just individual channels), and wireless radio. There are many good works of communications scholarship that detail their histories and their implications for the ways that these technologies were received and implemented. In the Buzzfeed article, all of this rich history, the network’s convoluted trajectory to reality and lifestyle programming, is flattened in service of a narrative that maps onto internet culture’s penchant for the “random.”

History and Television Scholarship

But the article got me thinking about television history, and about its place in the field of television studies more broadly. In fact, TLC is not the only cable network to turn towards reality and lifestyle programming in the early 2000s. It is possible to spin a similar story, for instance, about Bravo, whose fine arts-centric lineup evinced a seemingly abrupt shift towards reality and lifestyle programming in the early 2000s with the launch of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007). A&E, an importer of quality British dramas during the 1980s and 90s, followed a similar path when it began airing reality series like Inked (2005-2006) and Dog the Bounty Hunter (2004-2012). Lifestyle comprises a cluster of genres that erupted in the late 1990s from educational and public broadcasting to colonize a huge range of commercial channels. There is a history here, in other words, about lifestyle’s emergence as a dominant paradigm on cable networks, of which TLC’s “weird history” is but one component.

Due to the concerted efforts of television scholars and media archivists, we have rich histories of postwar television, and much good work remains underway in that period. On the other end of things, it seems that media studies conferences are awash with papers—many great ones—about contemporary lifestyle television programs. But they tend to focus on individual programs, and are not grounded in an understanding of what makes a program “lifestyle” or how the concept implicates viewers in discourses of class, gender, and consumerism. Indeed, the current presentist focus in our field looms large, to the point where conference panels on television history are peripheral and spottily attended. There is a lacuna, in other words, in our understanding of television history, and it lies in the recent past. Part of this is due to the difficulty in accessing lifestyle’s recent past. Licensing and monetization practices on the part of the industry have made it difficult to access materials that are not either currently on air or on DVD. Lifestyle programs in particular seem to occupy a dim purgatory: often only released as “best-of” DVD collections rather than full seasons, if they are released at all. More likely, they are slot-fillers in the perpetual present of cable reruns.

Despite the difficulty of accessing materials, there are very real material conditions that have precipitated the move toward lifestyle, and those conditions are worth uncovering. Rather than flatten the trajectory of The Learning Channel into a series of logos, a shift to privatization, and an abrupt and inscrutable move from educational to lowbrow fare (“Which brings us to this…” as Buzzfeed tidily puts it), we might instead think about the ways that industrial pressures and cultural forces converged to produce these changes. TLC, Bravo, and other educational networks’ rapid shifts in programming are likely related to its changes in funding sources, US communications policy, industry practices, technological changes and the proliferation of channels in the past three decades. We need a history of lifestyle and its emergence as a dominant form of commercial programming in the US. Lifestyle programming is difficult to track down and difficult to see in the rear view. But until we as a scholarly community turn our attention to the histories that make possible the present, our understanding of it will only ever be partial.


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