‘Spaces’ slump pushes TLC to makeover mode

Ailing skein spurs redo

A correction was made to this article on July 6, 2004.

NEW YORK — An attack of the clones has sent “Trading Spaces” into a ratings tailspin.

Nielsen numbers for TLC’s signature home makeover skein have plunged by an average of 50% during the just-completed second quarter in a dizzying decline for a series that was a runaway hit for the cabler in 2002 and 2003.

Falloff in the ratings for “Trading Spaces” has taken a major toll on TLC, dropping the cabler into 16th place in the second quarter in primetime among total viewers. “Trading Spaces” had harvested so many viewers in 2003 that TLC finished last year in ninth place in total viewers among all ad-supported cable networks.

Overall, TLC is down 20% from the same period in 2003.

The situation immediately brings to mind “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which burned brightly in 1999 but fizzled quickly after ABC got greedy and ran the show into the ground by airing the skein as many as four times per week.

Cable nets frequently rely on multiple repeats of hit shows, but TLC took things to the extreme with “Trading Spaces,” which bowed quietly in 2000. In addition to tons of repeats, cabler has ordered up several spinoffs of the “Spaces” brand — from a kiddie version for NBC to a Sunday family edition– as well as stunts like “Trading Spaces: Home Free.”

What’s more, both TLC and its competitors have gone to town ordering up “Spaces” clones, with virtually every possible incarnation of the home improvement genre now in existence on one cabler or another. There’s even BBC America’s “Changing Rooms,” the show that actually spawned “Spaces.”

The broadcast nets have also gotten into the act, with ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (starring “Spaces” hunk Ty Pennington) and Fox’s forthcoming “The Complex: Malibu.”

TLC execs admit there’s a problem.

“We’ve got to reinvent the show, and clearly we should’ve done it a little bit sooner,” said Roger Marmet, exec VP and general manager of TLC.

When the new season starts shooting in August, Marmet said, “We’ll evolve the format so that the show will be a lot less predictable than it is now.”

He declined to provide any further details about changes in the content of the program for competitive reasons,.

Some changes have already been attempted: A few new designers have been recruited and the end-of-show reveal has been tweaked.

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for the Turner cable networks, said there’s “less watercooler buzz around (‘Trading Spaces’) because the genre has become saturated.”

But Wakshlag said TLC deserves some of the blame for the show’s troubles by scheduling reruns so frequently that many viewers tired of it.

For example, during the second quarter of last year, TLC ran a total of 156 telecasts of “Trading Spaces” in all dayparts. In the current second quarter, TLC went bananas, scheduling 250 episodes, a jump of 60%.

Faced with that saturation, it may be no surprise that the ratings among total viewers and the three key adult demos (18-34, 18-49 and 25-54) all dropped about 50% for those various second-quarter runs of the show.

But Marmet said TLC is not ready to push the panic button.

“TLC is not just about ‘Trading Spaces,'” he said. “We produce 850 hours of original programming a year that speaks to our audience.”

Of course, many of those 850 hours are “Spaces” clones, such as “Clean Sweep” and “While You Were Out.” Cabler’s other hits include “What Not to Wear” and the car-makeover program “Overhaulin’.”

TLC is hardly the first cabler to face a ratings decline for a signature skein.

After becoming a pop culture phenom shortly after its debut, “South Park” stumbled significantly — but eventually stabilized and continues to be one of Comedy Central’s top performers.

VH1 also faced tough times after the success of “Behind the Music” spawned a slew of copycats.

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