NEW YORK (AP) – Two years ago, the people at TLC wouldn’t have traded spaces with anybody.

The home makeover show “Trading Spaces” was one of those cultural phenomena most tiny cable networks can only dream about, and TLC rode the wave to record ratings and attention. Then it crashed.

Doomed by overexposure, imitation and changing tastes, “Trading Spaces” lost much of its audience and TLC has paid the price. Its president, Roger Marmet, was ousted. Some two dozen jobs were lost. And TLC is struggling to change the perception that it’s a network in free fall.

As they pick up the pieces, the executives at parent Discovery Communications are left to ponder whether this was avoidable, or simply the inevitable effect of gravity, TV style.

“You can’t get to the stratosphere and stay there,” said John Harvey, senior producer at “Trading Spaces.” “It rarely happens in this industry.”

The show’s Saturday night viewership has nose-dived from 659,000 last year to 429,000 this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. The decline is 46 percent among the youthful demographic that advertisers seek. This past weekend the show debuted in a new format, without perky hostess Paige Davis.

Meanwhile, ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” – starring former “Trading Spaces” carpenter-hunk Ty Pennington – is a hit that drew 15.5 million viewers last week.

At its peak, TLC was running “Trading Spaces” episodes as many as 10 times a week. Harvey’s production company was churning out themed specials to feed an insatiable hunger. Davis’ face was on magazine covers and in TV commercials.

Both TLC and competitors sought to duplicate the success. At one point, Discovery CEO Billy Campbell counted some 28 replicas of the show all over the dial. Even VH1 tried making over rock stars’ homes.

“Did we overexpose the show and the genre?” Harvey asked. “I think the answer is yeah. Here’s the dilemma that every network doing this faces: You can stand back and be pristine and say we’re going to jealously guard this … But if you do that, everyone will still cherry-pick and steal your ideas. That’s what happens when something is a success.”

The classic case of overexposure is “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which put ABC in such a deep hole it is only recovering this season.

Campbell argues that TLC didn’t overexpose “Trading Spaces.” The cumulative effect of all those imitators hurt the most, he said.

“It’s always tempting when you have success,” he said. “Look how many people tried to copy “Friends.’ Look how many people tried to copy “Seinfeld.’ I saw “Grey’s Anatomy’ the other night, and it’s basically a young person’s “ER.’ As a programmer, it’s hard not to emulate success because that’s your goal, to make successful programming.”

Still, resisting the temptation would have served TLC better, he said. Similar makeover shows like “While You Were Out” and “What Not to Wear” have dragged down TLC’s ratings. Campbell faults TLC management for not developing other distinctive programming.

“They made something that they thought was going to be a great ride and it was for a while,” said Burton Jablin, chief executive of the HGTV network. “But they couldn’t get that magic to happen again in other programs in that genre.”

As an entire network devoted to home improvements and entertaining, it had to hurt HGTV to miss out on “Trading Spaces.” Now that it has faded, Jablin doesn’t gloat.

While HGTV has a clearly defined niche, TLC is a broader interest network. The “life unscripted” motto tells the tale; TLC presents nonfiction programming of all kinds. But this can be a problem: when new fans tune in for the first time because of “Trading Spaces,” they believe that is what the network is all about, he said.

“So when you try to develop other programming, the audience says, “Wait a minute. TLC is about “Trading Spaces” kind of shows. What is this all about?”‘ Jablin said. “It’s an incredibly difficult challenge.”

“Trading Spaces” remains on the air, and is comfortably successful by cable standards. It’s just not a phenomenon. The new format gives the show a chance for a fresh start.

“It’s interesting and has a different kind of feel to it,” Harvey said. “You feel like you’re watching and eavesdropping more, because there’s no one between you and the action.”

TLC reached overseas for a new general manager. He’s David Abraham, who has been in charge of Discovery Networks in Britain. His mission is simple: turn around ugly numbers like the 33 percent drop in prime-time viewership TLC has suffered from last year.

Campbell still wants to focus on nonfiction programming, but feature more real people. One idea is “The Sit Down,” like one of those courtroom shows that resolve disputes, but done with a Mafia-style don.

Seeing what happened to TLC almost makes you wonder if it’s worth having a megahit that burns bright but burns out fast. MTV lives off that philosophy, but it always seems to have another sensation around the corner. When “The Osbournes” faded from view, “Pimp My Ride” was there to pick up the slack.

But not everyone is MTV. Maybe a slow, steady growth – like the kind experienced by HGTV – is better.

It’s almost like the TV equivalent of an age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost, or to never have loved at all?

Most people wouldn’t trade the experience.

But every hit has a flip side.

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EDITOR’S NOTE – David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)

AP-ES-04-10-05 1526EDT

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