Image: Hulu

The Unseen Realities of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting

What’s not being discussed is how a reality show like this is in an integral part of a complex media system.

By JOANNA ARCIERI


“Reality TV promises its audience revelatory insight into the lives of others as it withholds and subverts full access to it.” — Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture


It finally happened. After almost a decade of being America’s favorite oversized Evangelical family next door, the Duggars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting (2008– ) are experiencing a scandal for which there might actually be repercussions.

What We Know So Far

  • On Thursday May 21, InTouch published a police report indicating allegations that oldest son Josh Duggar was accused of child molestation in 2006. His father, Jim Bob, waited more than a year to report the accusations.
  • Josh Duggar has since apologized and resigned as Executive Director of the Family Research Council (FRC).
  • Various blogs and websites are now uncovering many of the less often discussed aspects of the Duggars religion and lifestyle. Buzzfeed, for instance, has a post on the homeschooling practices the Duggars promote via 19 Kids and Counting.
  • Other media outlets have reported that the allegations about Josh Duggar have been circulating on the Internet for years. (This is true. I first heard about the allegations some time ago.)
  • TLC has pulled, not canceled, episodes of 19 Kids and Counting. You can still watch full episodes on TLC.com and there remains significant demands for cancellation.
  • As of May 27, 19 Kids and Counting has lost advertisers including General Mills and Walgreens.
  • While it seems that the scandal has simmered down over the long weekend, expect more news to spiral in the coming days until TLC makes a definitive decision on the future of 19 Kids and Counting.

Coincidentally, I wrote a final paper on 19 Kids and Counting for my “Media, Culture & Power in International Communications” course two weeks ago. (Snaps for grad school.)

So for the past month, I have been researching everything from the Duggar family and the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) to representations of extreme lifestyles on reality television, to the branding of TLC and Discovery Communications. Needless to say, I have been following this scandal more closely than I ever paid attention to the similar fallouts that occurred with reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (2012–14) and Jon & Kate Plus 8 (2007-).

Much of what is being written across the Internet right now focuses on the scandal itself — especially the cringeworthy behavior of various Duggars over the years. Yet what is not happening enough is actually looking at how a show like 19 Kids and Counting in an integral part of a complex media system.

When you examine a show like 19 Kids and Counting, you quickly realize that more is going on than you could ever imagine. These are the main points we should focus on when we talk about the Duggars, the media empire they’ve built, and what is at stake for TLC/Discovery Communications.

Meet the Duggars

The Duggars made their cable television debut in the 2005 special 14 Children and Pregnant Again! TLC aired four additional specials before 19 Kids and Counting — then called 17 Kids and Counting — premiered in 2008.

Now in its tenth season, TLC has broadcast more than 200 episodes of 19 Kids and Counting, making the show one of the channel’s longest running and most successful reality series. Currently, the series is posting some of TLC’s highest rated telecasts in years.

19 Kids and Counting normalizes the every day activities of this supersized American Evangelical family. A typical 30-minute episode of 19 Kids and Counting follows the Duggars as they go about mundane everyday tasks including meals, homeschooling, laundry, shopping and doctor’s visits.

But like any reality television series, 19 Kids and Counting provides “viewers with an unmediated, voyeuristic, and yet often playful look into… the ‘entertaining real’”(Ouellette and Murray 5). “The entertaining real” of the Duggar family has been carefully constructed even as the family extended their sphere of influence to include books, family blogs, and a strong social media presence.

Overtime the Duggars have a “built family like a company” and through that company, they are promoting a specific Evangelical lifestyle.

Extreme Motherhood, Extreme Conservatism

The Duggars follow the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and Quiverfull, two Christian Evangelical movements founded and supported by Bill Gothard. (Gothard stepped down from his position in 2014 following a sex scandal.)

Although 19 Kids and Counting often shows the Duggars attending church services, mission trips, or religious conferences, the family’s specific Evangelical beliefs are rarely explicitly stated on the series itself.

Quiverfull is a pro-purist lifestyle where women forego all birth control options and motherhood is viewed as essential women’s work. Quiverfull followers view women’s liberation as the cause of societal problems including abortion, divorce and premarital sex. Quiverfull women are expected to subservient to their husbands and fathers.

Profiles in People Magazine also normalizes Quiverfull practices.

19 Kids and Counting establishes the Duggar family — particularly the Duggar men — as prime examples of successful Evangelicals because of their multiple children and financial stability. Thus, the public recognition and admiration of the Duggars has become vital for Quiverfull’s sustainability. The movement is small but growing with an estimated tens of thousands of followers.

As public Evangelicals, the Duggars are given considerable access to conservative politicians in the United States. Through their various social media platforms, pro-LGBTQ discrimination robocolls, and Josh Duggar’s position with the FRC, the Duggars have become vocal mouthpiece for the conservative right. (It is also unsurprising that one of their most vocal supporters is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee always has been on #TeamDuggar.) Until this past week, the popularity of 19 Kids and Counting remained unaffected by the Duggars’ political beliefs and advocacy.

TLC and Discovery Communications

There is a running joke about The Learning Channel: when did the cable channel stop teaching? What began as an educational channel formed by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1972, has evolved into a privately own cable network.

Seemingly every show on TLC focuses on extreme behavior and grotesqueries. Above all, TLC is targeted towards female viewers and the success of 19 Kids and Counting has been integral to this brand development.

As Jack Dickey recently wrote in Time, the channel “reaches the women of Middle America by parading unusual humans before them and hoping… that viewers relate to their struggles.” Primetime reality series like Little People, Big World (2006-), Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 19 Kids and Counting have all become synonymous with the TLC brand.

TLC’s current slogan, “Everybody Needs A Little TLC,” emphasizes familial love. No matter the family.

Most significantly, without 19 Kids and Counting — and other similarly controversial reality shows centered around extreme lifestyles — Discovery Communications would not be experiencing unprecedented international successes. Not only does Discovery own most of its programming (limiting foreign licensing fees), but most of its shows — even undeniably American reality series like 19 Kids and Counting — translate well globally. For Discovery, the Duggars are essentially an exportable commodity.

But the landscape of cable television industry has significantly changed. Competition from on-demand services and online streaming websites means that global mass media enterprises like Discovery must constantly evolve. As Discovery continues to define and redefine itself during this supposed “golden age of television,” the prominence of its standing as a global network has only just begun. The Duggars have been key contributors to this success.

The Future of 19 Kids and Counting

“Perhaps when the very idea of a cable subscription begins to seem antiquated, strong brands may all that’s left standing,” writes Jack Dickey in his April 2015 profile of Discovery CEO David Zaslav. In a time when reality television stars must have marketability beyond the limits of a television series, TLC’s branding is what separates it from many cable networks.

In early May, Discovery launched TLCme, a hub for original digital content. The site is essentially a lifestyle blog that is heavily dependent on TLC’s main personalities. Articles about the Duggars dominated the site until the InTouch article broke.

Much of what I’ve written here appeared in my grad school paper on 19 Kids and Counting. Two weeks ago, I concluded that the Duggars were integral to TLC’s brand and that their sphere of influence would continue to grow despite more than a few pointedly political public appearances and posts on social media.

I also wrote this: “Only a moral scandal, such as the child molestation accusations that led to the cancellation of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, could end the Duggar’s fame. So far, the Duggars have managed to avoid the impact of such a scandal.”

It seems that the hypothetical scandal I alluded in my essay to is happening now. I’m genuinely curious what will happen next.

When you look beyond the religious and political practices of the Duggar family, 19 Kids and Counting is essential programming for TLC and Discovery Communications. If the network can find a way to keep the Duggars on the air, it will. (And yes, there is a double standard in how a Christian family is treated versus the family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.)

Much of what happens next is significantly tied to the Duggars’ role as public Evangelicals. Even without 19 Kids and Counting serving as their primary form of Christian ministry, the reach of the Duggars, the IBLP and Quiverfull is massive. I honestly don’t believe America’s favorite Evangelicals next-door are going away any time soon.


Additional References:

Jack Dickey. “The Cable Boss: Why David Zaslav is the Biggest Guy in Television.” Time 13 April 2015: 42–47.

Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: New York, University Press, 2009.

Originally published at Cine-fille.

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