TLC Chief Howard Lee on Challenging Viewers With the Network’s Over-the-Top Reality Fare

Daniel D'Addario

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For Howard Lee, the president of TLC, pivoting reality shows like “90 Day Fiancé” into self-taped series in the era of quarantine is a logistical challenge. But getting the talent on board has been the easy part.

“We’ve already been seeing footage coming in, and we’re already putting it together, because this is the fastest turnaround we’ve ever done,” Lee says, via Zoom, ahead of the April 20 launch of “90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined.” “But a commonality of all of our programming at TLC is ‘I’m often misunderstood. Please listen to me.’ This is just a new way of how to capture that. They’re used to this.”  

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Prior to COVID scrambling the priorities and production schedules of every shop in the TV business, Lee had already built out TLC — the Discovery Communications-owned network best known, when he arrived in 2008, for the radical candor of the octuplet parents on “Jon & Kate Plus 8” — into an unscripted colossus. The numbers suggest TLC was built for this moment, with primetime ratings up 111% year over year in its target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds.

Now, Lee has worked to ensure that editors and producers are able to work remotely, and gotten camera equipment to talent (even as footage is coming in off smartphones). Lee’s goal is to “make some episodes that are watchable down the road in the future by the time we’ve reached the third or fourth quarter of 2020.”

That would keep a robust momentum rolling. TLC has certain competitive advantages that may account for its boom times in a bust cycle. One is Lee’s willingness to adapt his programming to meet viewers where they are, reframing this chaotic moment as an opportunity. Another is TLC’s organizing principle: finding shows that would make more timid audience members — or executives — blanch. 

Lee “embraces risk,” says Kathleen Finch, Discovery’s chief lifestyle brands officer. “He doesn’t wring his hands and say, ‘What if this doesn’t work? What if I get in trouble?’ That’s the last thing he’s thinking about. He’s thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait for America to see this show — it is so over the top!’” 

Consider, for instance, “Dr. Pimple Popper,” a series that combines a hearty appetite for physical extremity (all those pimples, and yet larger cysts, popped) and a revolving door of patients who exist in another America entirely from that occupied by, say, Bravo’s real housewives or ABC’s bachelors. Then there’s “90 Day Fiancé,” which wrapped up its seventh season earlier this year, and in which immigrants seeking visas live out the waiting period with American romantic partners so that they can wed and obtain a green card. It’s a show with a brutal frankness about the transaction being undertaken, shot through with glimmers of recognizable emotion even in an unrecognizable situation. Throughout, the projects are buoyed by casting of people for whom outspokenness comes naturally. As Lee says of his talent: “This is in their soul, to speak out.” 

And viewers are responding, perhaps more now than ever. Spinoff series “Before the 90 Days” posted the highest ratings ever for the franchise in TLC’s key demos in late April, with a 3.87 among women 25 to 54. This all-time high beat a previous record set on April 5; the season opener, which aired before COVID-related nationwide shutdowns began, had been the best-ever launch for the 6-year-old franchise.

Compelling as the on-air personalities are, these shows can, at times, find themselves the subject of controversy: Last year, for instance, The New York Times called “90 Day Fiancé” “a guilty pleasure that invites viewers to offload their confusion, mistrust and guilt around immigration” onto its subjects. Lee defends the programming as fundamentally honest. “I don’t agree when I read something that says our shows go too far,” he says. “We are not intentionally trying to make something go too far. We only cast people who want to really outright wear their heart on their sleeves, and really say what’s going on in their lives. And often, their lives can be messy. And that’s real.” 

No moment could be messier than the present one, for Lee’s on-camera talent recording themselves on iPhones and for the audience sequestered at home. (“90 Day Fiancé” is not the only TLC show shooting in self-quarantine; another is “OutDaughtered,” about a family raising quintuplets in Houston.) Lee sees it as a chance to create programming that probes its subjects even more deeply — because they’re the ones doing the analysis. “They don’t have to wait for a crew anymore,” he says. “The way you behave can be very different when you’re alone talking to your phone, evaluating your own life.” It’s a risk that the audience will embrace a stripped-down and even more frank version of reality TV — but Lee’s bets have tended to pay off. 

Lee claims not to watch other networks’ unscripted offerings, preferring Turner Classic Movies. His passion for the craft of making television and for the medium’s history — he lights up at a casual mention of “The Thorn Birds,” the 1983 Richard Chamberlain potboiler — can be surprising, if only because executives from the early days might have no idea what to make of “Dr. Pimple Popper.” 

Or perhaps TLC’s less a digression from TV history than it seems. Says Lee: “You had all the ‘farm shows,’ as I call them. ‘Green Acres’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ We had ‘The Brady Bunch,’ of course; that’s a family show, and we have things going on here at TLC that are very similar to that. That was noisy back then. We have to modify it — that’s my challenge. So if I found folks on a farm now, or a real life Mike and Carol Brady, I’m going to embrace it and use it.” Certainly TLC is no stranger to series depicting rural America (like, say, “Sister Wives”) or families that don’t resemble the Waltons (ditto). 

Lee’s upbringing included study at New York City’s performing arts-centered High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan as an entertainment-mad youth raised by Chinese immigrants. “I saw how they were pretty much ignored every time they walked into a store holding my hands because they had really bad English,” he says. “I’ve always felt like an outsider. Just look at me right now. You don’t really see, normally, a network head who’s an Asian male.” He cites personalities from TLC’s air, like trans teen star Jazz Jennings of “I Am Jazz” or fat-acceptance activist Whitney Thore of “My Big Fat Fabulous Life.” “I understand them and why they want to try to be further understood,” he says. “‘Please understand me’ or ‘Please understand my family’: That comes across in our programming. And you have to experience that as a child to really understand.”

But Lee’s strategy for TLC hinges on the fact that there are indeed many people who feel left out. “I think that the biggest competitive advantage is we are not tone-deaf,” Lee says. “Who you see on our brand is who you will see in America.” The story, in other words, takes precedence over subjects’ demographic realities or material wealth. On other networks, he notes, “a lot of people are really very West Coast/East Coast. More glamorous. And we said, we don’t have to do that here.” 

Which means that the tension wrung out of each moment of “90 Day Fiancé” is amplified by the conversations taking place in homes smaller than one would see on Bravo, and that Dr. Pimple Popper meets people who would look out of place on VH1. On the upcoming self-quarantine episodes of “90 Day Fiancé,” Lee suggests, viewers will see how the show’s far-flung cast reacts to cataclysm: “We’re taking characters from all over the world, and with the global pandemic that’s happening — this is global, and this is how all these people are handling it.”

TLC is losing some glimmer in delegating production to its talent. But it’s likely, perhaps, to gain further appreciation from an audience whose struggles in quarantine are reflected back at them. Under Lee, it’s a network with the agility — having long been pursuing stories that exist outside the typical corridors for “aspirational” cable productions — to shift to a new production reality. 

“The intimate way that we are making our television shows during this peculiar period is going to dramatically change how television is made,” Finch says. “The most intimate show on television is ‘90 Day Fiancé,’ and to make it more down-and-dirty — the audience is going to respond in a way that’s pretty remarkable.” 

That response will continue — just as COVID may — well into 2021. Lee is coming up with ideas that may have a lasting impact on what TLC’s air looks like even once the pandemic abates; the frankness his show’s subjects exhibit when talking to their phones really is thrilling. “What I’m loving the most in this four-week stage I’ve been in at home,” he says, “is that this is educating us about what we can do in the future. The talent is being educated. They never realized how much empowerment they had on their own to speak up.” 

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