On Memorial Day, it would have been nice if the top-rated show was PBS’s concert paying patriotic tribute to our brave fighting men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Instead, this Memorial Day had a different, much less laudable spectacle top the ratings. The cable channel TLC beat every broadcast network with a new season debut of "Jon and Kate Plus 8," a "reality" program chronicling the eventful life of parents of a set of twins and a set of sextuplets.
The show itself was not some offensive parade of sex or gore. The spectacle here is the collapsing marriage of the "reality" show stars, Jon and Kate Gosselin, prodded along for weeks by all the tabloids and celebrity magazines. First, there were charges that Jon cheated on Kate with a teacher, and then came counter-charges that Kate cheated on Jon with their bodyguard. The question that didn’t dominate: With a marriage on the rocks and eight young children in the balance, why not cancel the show and concentrate on real life?
Executives at TLC, part of the Discovery Communications family of channels, will not discuss the Gosselins’ contracts or the status of their marriage. But in a corporate statement, they predictably touted how the audience loves the exploitation: "the show’s ratings have grown consistently, as there has been interest in these real-life issues of this real-life family." And: "We will continue to air as the interest continues, and the family wants to do it."
Translation: Family unity or sanity be damned. We’ve got a hit on our hands.
This is not the way this show and this family first looked like on TV. It debuted in 2005 on the Discovery Health Network as a special, and then became a series. It was a program that appealed to families who looked at the extreme parenting challenge of loving and caring for six needy babies.
The back story was charming. Kate had fertility treatments, but refused to "selectively reduce" (yet another euphemism for abortion) any of six babies for the sake of convenience. Jon’s employer, the lout, laid him off because he didn’t want the insurance burden. Jon and Kate instantly were very sympathetic figures facing a very real, human challenge — and serious hardship — with pluck and devotion. The show caught on enough to be "promoted" to TLC. That led to spinoff books and speeches, where the Gosselins were more candid about their Christian faith than they were on TV.
But within two years, as the show became TLC’s top attraction, the temptations of fame and materialism began seeping in. Companies from Whirlpool to The Gap were placing their products on the show, so much so that Nielsen ranked this series in the top 10 product-placing shows on cable TV. Both parents got their teeth whitened, and Jon got a free hair transplant. Soon they were showing up on "Oprah" and "Good Morning America." The last season of the show (which just ended a few months ago) began to focus less on "real" issues and more on taking the eight kids on special trips that average people never enjoy (like running the bases at a Philadelphia Phillies game).
That season ended with a clear marital conflict. Jon wanted an end to the show, and Kate did not. Jon clearly lost that battle. The highly rated new episode was a vague mess, with Jon and Kate avoiding each other and none of the marital troubles explained or resolved. But there was a new complication: nasty paparazzi stalking the family home.
Even worse, the parents are having no problem airing all their dirty laundry in the pages of People magazine, complete with pictures.
What about the children? How can they grow up unharmed in this kind of a fishbowl? But by the twisted rules of "reality" television, a collapsing marriage and screaming fits are a gold mine.
There are voices of sanity on this. Kevin Kreider, Kate’s younger brother, appeared with his wife on CBS and accused TLC of exploiting the Gosselin children and treating them as commodities. They claim already to have seen signs of adverse effects and resentment among the children at the constant cameras zooming in on their every move. Every birthday party or outing for the children is organized by a production company with their eyes on the highest ratings.
But these relatives can’t imagine Kate allowing a voluntary end to the show, so they advocated the passage of laws to protect children who appear on "reality" shows. This shouldn’t require an act of Congress. If the loyal audience for this show really cares for this family, they should be demanding that TLC put an end to the show and the damaging circus it generated.
Everyone involved disgusts on some level.