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Critics may roll their eyes at “Extreme Couponing”, and non-extreme couponers may cringe – but somebody’s watching. The fourth season debut of the TLC show earned respectable ratings last night, indicating that the coupon craze – and the show that helped to fuel it – isn’t running out of steam just yet.

Tuesday’s season premiere drew 1.028 million viewers. It’s a far cry from the 2.6 million who watched the series debut in April 2011, but still a decent number for an aging (by reality TV standards) show.

The back-to-back new episodes that kicked off season four mostly followed a familiar routine – getting to know the couponer, getting a peek at their stockpile, tagging along as they went shopping, and building up to the big drama of checkout. There were some tweaks to the format, though. Gone was the narrator who would tell the couponers’ stories and toss in a few couponing statistics to give the show some semblance of being “educational”. Two of the four couponers featured were on a quest for healthy foods – helping to dispel the notion that coupons are only good for junk food. And only one couponer faced the now-cliched “problem at checkout”, which was quickly resolved when the cashier manually inputted coupons that wouldn’t scan properly.

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But the biggest difference was the apparent absence of overt coupon fraud – so far. The show’s producers have been criticized in the past for seemingly turning a blind eye to the use of coupons that were later found to be counterfeit (read: “‘Extreme Couponing’ Returns – For Better or Worse”). This season’s episodes were the first to be produced since coupon counterfeiting hit the headlines in a big way, with the arrest of three Phoenix women accused in a multi-million dollar fraudulent coupon ring (read: “Cops Crack Crooked Coupon Caper”). Some who have investigated the coupons used on the show, suspect that many of them – particularly high-value free-item coupons – may have come from that very coupon ring.

This time, the show’s focus seemed to continue a recent shift from featuring couponers’ “biggest haul ever”, to more modest goals. One woman wanted to host a backyard cookout, another wanted to cook a large meal for her large family. Saving money just for the sake of it was less of a motivation. So there was less reason for the couponers featured to use dozens of suspect high-value coupons just to run up the retail price and boost their final savings percentage.

A competing show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network recently tried a kinder, gentler approach to couponing – and failed miserably (read: “A Kinder, Gentler ‘Extreme Couponing’ – But Who’s Watching?”). So can an “Extreme Couponing” that’s not so extreme anymore, continue to succeed? While it earned decent numbers, Wednesday’s first episode was the lowest-rated of any of the four season premieres so far. And in the past, each season tends to debut with strong ratings, which then taper off as the season goes on.

So in a way, the current season – and perhaps the series itself – has nowhere to go but down. It’s already been eclipsed as a water-cooler reality show by “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”. And that series, in turn, has already been surpassed in the ratings by TLC’s “Breaking Amish”. Audiences have a short attention span, and at the rate TLC is cranking out more and more outlandish reality shows, it will only be a matter of time before “Extreme Couponing” reaches its expiration date. At least until TLC debuts the mother of all reality shows, featuring Amish conjoined-twin polygamist psychic beauty pageant contestants who coupon. Now that’s reality!

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