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The TLC network learning curve

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
"Toddlers & Tiaras," about the world of pint-size beauty pageants, is part of the popular programming on TLC.
"Toddlers & Tiaras," about the world of pint-size beauty pageants, is part of the popular programming on TLC.
  • TLC has evolved from its days as The Learning Channel
  • Announcement of "Sarah Palin's Alaska" show has some questioning the network's path
  • Marketing expert says new show featuring Palin marks "point of no return"

(CNN) -- Many people who watch the TLC network may not even remember when those letters stood for The Learning Channel.

And with its current programming -- which includes super-size families, baby beauty queens and the recently announced "Sarah Palin's Alaska" -- some have questioned whether the network has strayed from its original mission of informative, educational programming.

"The Learning Channel started out as an educational tool that was shown in the classrooms," said Ross K. Bagwell Sr., whose Ross Television Productions worked with the network in its earlier days and were the original producers of the show "Trading Spaces."

"They certainly couldn't show it in the classroom today."

The Learning Channel, in its modern form, was founded in 1980. In 1991, it was purchased by the Discovery Channel, which revamped the cable network's programming following its purchase.

The next year, it introduced a daily six-hour commercial-free block of children's programs, and finally about 10 years ago, the name was changed to TLC.

In the years that followed, the channel built a solid reputation for family-friendly programming. Shows such as "The Wedding Story" and "The Baby Story" soon gave way to other series that provided glimpses into the ordinary lives of extraordinary people like the Roloffs, a family where the parents are little people, and infamous "Jon & Kate Plus 8."

The success of such series prompted the network to roll out other similarly themed shows. At the same time, Jon and Kate Gosselin -- as well as other TLC stars such as the Duggar family -- became mainstays of the celebrity press, boosting ratings.

Cable networks often evolve over time in their quest for bigger audiences, said Joe Flint, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times who covers entertainment.

"A lot of cable networks have moved away from what their core mission is," Flint said. "If you look at the History Channel, there's not an awful lot of history on it anymore, and likewise, A&E isn't featuring a lot of arts and entertainment programming.

"TLC is doing what a lot of other cable networks have done, which is try to broaden out and get bigger audiences."

TLC has branched out seemingly into other networks' territories with shows such as "Cake Boss" (about the life of a bakery owner and his family), "L.A. Ink" (tattoo artists) and "Say Yes to the Dress" (bridal gown shopping).

But the alignment with the polarizing Sarah Palin, for a show that will be helmed by reality TV veteran Mark Burnett, could mark a major shift for TLC, said Rachel Weingarten, a New York-based marketing expert.

"I don't think this is a point that [TLC] can turn back from," Weingarten said. "I actually think this is a point of no return."

But Weingarten added that while Palin has her share of detractors, she also has a strong fan base and someone was bound to try and capture that audience.

"I would have thought it was going to be Fox," Weingarten said. "Somebody sat down, and they made a very conscious decision and said we will potentially alienate a lot of viewers, but what we will also do is embrace an entirely different demographic."

Hal Boedeker, who writes about television for the Orlando Sentinel, said that "Sarah Palin's Alaska" benefits from being associated with Burnett, the mind behind the reality show "Survivor," which many credit with spearheading the reality TV boom.

"I would expect ['Sarah Palin's Alaska'] to be very well produced," he said. "It's going to have huge coverage because people are going to want to see how much Sarah is in the show."

And, Boedeker added, TLC is used to the focus as the home base of a divisive personality. "With Sarah Palin, people either really love her or they really hate her, much like Kate Gosselin."

But Bagwell, who first began working with the channel in the 1980s, said the network has sacrificed credibility along the way from The Learning Channel to TLC -- and a move away from experienced independent producers like him.

Now, it's all about the ratings, he said.

"The Sarah Palin thing is nothing more than an identity crisis," Bagwell said. "They are trying to get you to watch them."