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television: Learning Vicariously

For the daytime TV watcher, TLC offers something a little more real than the soaps.

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You can worry about the bigamy thing later, when your schedule isn't quite so full.

Fantasy?

You bet. But it must be paying off for The Learning Channel, which is stripping "Story" stories Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

What's a "Story" story? Well, at 9 a.m. it's "A Baby Story." Then there's "A Wedding Story" at 10. Next come tales of plastic surgery on "A Personal Story" at 11, and at noon, … well, you get the picture. And since each "story" is only a half-hour long, this means you're getting two per hour. Which, in the case of the "Baby" and "Wedding" stories, means four a day. That's a lot of stories.

What's it all mean?

The Learning Channel is making a strong play for women 18-35, women with disposable income, women looking to nest, upwardly mobile women, women focused on themselves — and surprisingly, women with the time to watch TV during the daytime.

A futile quest? Wouldn't those women make up a minuscule niche market? Well, no and yes. Niche markets are by definition small, but the niche market that TLC is targeting is one that's very attractive to advertisers.

Now that we've made economic sense of it all, the question is, does it make interesting viewing? Again, the answer is yes and no. Whether the program is tracking the last few days before Ann and Michael's wedding or the last few minutes of Heather's labor, the episodes are long on exposition, as you'd expect in low-budget five-a-week daytime shows, and short on snappy visuals, for the same reason. But even if you don't fit any of the target demographics, it's still possible to get caught up in the stories if there's nothing pressing on your schedule and if you're a romantic at heart. These are, after all, real-life stories designed to be uplifting and life-affirming, with happy endings — whether your idea of a happy ending is shapelier thighs or marrying the man of your dreams or, perhaps, twins.

How does Shannon look a week after her makeover? How's Chip and Sara's marriage going now that the honeymoon's over? And did Rachelle's thighs turn out the way she wanted? TLC is strongly supporting its daytime lineup with an interactive Web site for each show — complete with follow-up reports, fan chat, suggestions for further reading, and, of course, shopping opportunities - plus an opportunity to apply to be on the shows.

TLC has aimed its sights at a specific audience and is offering an attractive lineup — if you fit the demographic target. TLC is hoping hordes of young women viewers will be saying what Rachelle exclaimed excitedly after she got her thighs liposuctioned: "I got exactly what I wanted." S

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