Eight ain't enough

One of the most successful new shows of recent years is TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8. How successful? It consistently wins its time slot against all other cable competitors, including high-profile shows such as The Closer, and among the very desirable demographic of women between eighteen and thirty-four it outdraws broadcast network offerings Two and a Half Men, Heroes and 24. TLC has had a number of different identities over the years, and has become very nimble in responding to unexpected successes. Starting out with science programming, back when it was called The Learning Channel, the programming moved first into real-estate and home remodelling shows and then to programs such as The 750 Pound Man and It's Not Easy Being a Wolf Boy. Among these was a pair of shows about unusual families, Little People, Big World and Jon & Kate Plus 8. When the latter became a runaway success the channel quickly capitalized on it, and now features several other shows about large families such as Table for 12 and 18 Kids and Counting.

It's difficult to identify exactly what the appeal of these shows is. Unlike forerunners such as The Osbournes, the Gosselin family was not famous before the show, nor do they behave outrageously – in fact, the show nearly fetishizes how “normal” their lives are. The low-drama quality of these shows is part of their appeal, making it easier for viewers to ignore the cameras and imagine they're watching a real family's life. At the same time, it's hard to discount the “freak show” factor: in this way the Gosselin children are the spiritual descendants of the Dionne Quintuplets, who were given up to be wards of the state by their parents and set up in a facility called “Quintland” for public viewing. But TLC's willingness to try out new shows has made possible an almost scientific view of the show's success. As well as the above programs featuring families that have had multiple births, for instance, the channel also tried out shows about families with large numbers of adopted children (which were less popular). This leads to the conclusion that it's not just the size of the family that's drawing audiences: it is the fact that it is made up of multiples (twins plus sextuplets).

It's interesting to contrast the reception these families have received compared to the so-called “octomom,” Nadya Suleman, who has suffered significant criticism (including a dressing-down from Dr. Phil on a very highly-rated episode of his show) for her decision to consciously attempt multiple births. Why are the Gosselins lionized and Suleman criticized? One reason may be religion. Unlike Suleman, a single mother, the Gosselins present an ideal family image, and foreground their religious beliefs strongly. While their faith isn't that prominent on the show itself, many of their public appearances are at churches, and on their Web site they refer repeatedly to the role that religion has played in their lives: every decision is made only after much prayer, and they are careful to stress that they never considered selective reduction, even when it was recommended by their doctor. (The Duggars, the family featured in 18 Kids and Counting, make their religious beliefs a major part of their show as well.) The narrative of faith being tested, both by events and by authority figures, is surely one that resonates strongly with many audience members.

If the Gosselins and other TV families with multiples foreground their faith, another part of their appeal may relate to something pushed firmly into the background: their use of reproductive technology. Although none of these multiple births occurred unassisted, the details of how they happened are glossed over or simply ignored. Ignored , too, are the very real risks of carrying multiples to term, such as cerebral palsy. That, too, is in contrast to Suleman, whose conscious use of reproductive technology to bring about multiple births – twice – is front and centre in news stories about her. Why would this make such a difference in their relative appeal? Perhaps because ignoring this element lets viewers identify with the families more easily, but perhaps also because for many women of childbearing age difficulty in conceiving and reproductive technology are shadows hanging over them. Middle-class women are having their first children later than ever before in history, and many fear fertility problems; multiple births are a pleasant fantasy (get a whole family out of the way in one pregnancy) but medical interventions are something they'd rather not think about.

Another issue is the way that these shows impose a narrative on reality. That's something all reality TV series do, of course, but most don't capture experiences we're likely to find ourselves in; nearly everyone, though, lives with a family, even if it's a smaller one than the Gosselins or the Duggars. Like all reality shows, Jon & Kate is heavily edited to make every episode tell a story: the family holds a yard sale, visits a children's hospital, goes to Disney World or to a baseball game, gets new toys at Christmas – each of these is made into a satisfying story by picking and choosing from the hours of footage shot. The producers work behind the scenes to make things happen. For example, after the baseball game (from free box seats) the kids are allowed to run the bases, and the toys are provided in exchange for the show's extensive product placement – indeed, sometimes the children are given new toys months ahead of when they're available in stores, so that the episode featuring them will air at the same time the toys launch. Similarly, while the challenges of managing a large household are the focus of the show it nevertheless makes running such a large household seem unrealistically easy by glossing over the assistance the parents receive and the fact that neither one of them now works outside the home.

Besides the question of how the children are being affected by all this – in some states, such as California, using them in a TV show like this would be illegal – one has to wonder about the effect it has on how its viewers expect their lives to be. When capturing an experience as common as family life, in something that is presented as a documentary, is it ethical to shape the content so aggressively? Most families, multiple-birth or not, don't get free trips to Disney World or new toys before their release date; their houses aren't filled with studio lights and cameras (the Gosselins moved into a new house in part to make filming easier, with TLC paying for the renovations); and their lives aren't whittled into stories with tidy beginnings, middles and ends.

Questions for classroom discussion

  • What do you think is most responsible for the success of shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8?
  • How do you think watching shows like this affects our idea of what families are like?
  • Do you think it's right to include children in reality TV shows? Why or why not?
  • Is it accurate to call shows like these “documentaries”? Why or why not? What impact does it have on the public's perception of them?
  • Do you think shows like these give an unrealistic idea of how easy it is to raise large families? If so, is this irresponsible on the producers' part? Why or why not?