Editorials & Commentary

Here's the 'Reality' : Kids are Exploited

by Jeffrey M. McCall
Professor of Communication, DePauw University

Without eight kids to parade around on television, nobody would care about Jon and Kate Gosselin or their supposed marital troubles.

But because Jon and Kate have eight cute kids, they have a "reality" show, "Jon & Kate Plus 8," on national television.

Because they supposedly have marital difficulties, a flood of media attention has ensued, resulting in the show's highest ratings in its four-plus seasons.

Jon and Kate are adults and can decide for themselves how much of their personal laundry they want to air in front of the nation's television gawkers.

Their kids, however, are another story. They can't opt out.

Growing up in the fishbowl created by national television automatically changes the kids' lives, and not necessarily for the better.

Privacy is sacrificed. Emotional moments become "good television" in the eyes of the producers.

Years from now, the kids will still be identified as the Plus 8. The chances of their having regular lives are by now pretty slim, and they are getting smaller with each episode and each rumor about their parents' problems.

As nearly everyone knows by now, "reality" television shows are, indeed, heavily concocted and contrived.

The producers manipulate and plan the unfolding "real" events. In "Jon and Kate Plus 8," there is no show without the contributions of eight children.

To shoot the happenings and excursions of eight kids takes a lot of production planning, a lot of video equipment, a lot of kid manipulation, and generally, a lot of demands on the kids.

Kids in reality television shows, by the way, aren't protected under the same regulations that child actors for movies or television dramas are.

None of this is to say the Gosselin kids are being abused or intentionally harmed, but a life in front of a television production crew is not a normal life.

TLC, the cable channel airing the show, benefits from high ratings and sells commercials accordingly. Jon and Kate get a lot of media attention, sell books and make money.

Entertainment magazines pump sales by putting Jon and Kate on the cover. And what do the kids get out of this? Nothing. They are merely props in a television production.

The television industry in recent seasons has shown an increasingly risky disregard for the interests of kids in reality programming.

CBS aired the ethically bankrupt "Kid Nation" in 2007 by finding 40 parents who were willing to rent out their kids for $5,000 each.

The kids were sent away for six weeks to run their own town, living at first with only one outdoor toilet to accommodate all of them.

The kids harassed, pushed and belittled each other for a national TV audience. CBS planned "Kid Nation 2," but, thankfully, it has yet to hit the program schedule.

Then there was NBC's horrifying presentation of the "Baby Borrowers" last summer in which teen couples took charge of other people's babies for several days.

Billed as a social experiment to see whether teens could be good parents, the show deteriorated into scenes of bleep-filled verbal violence, babies vomiting and toilet issues.

This dehumanizing stunt used real babies as props for crass, commercial television purposes.

It was one thing when the Gosselin kids were younger, the show had low ratings and the parents were leading the happy lives of a young married couple.

The increased ratings, the ages of the kids and the national attention gathered by a potentially messy marital situation changes the equation.

It won't be as much fun following the kids as they endure a possible family breakup.

Now, it would be best if the network producers would do the responsible thing and draw this show to a quick, happy ending, letting the Gosselins depart to find a family life out of the limelight.

Jon seems hinting that he is ready for the show to end, complaining in recent interviews that the family has no privacy and saying, "I did not sign up for a public scrutiny of everything."

American viewers could help push that network decision by leaving the Jon & Kate audience and finding programs to watch that don't exploit children.

Contact Information

This article was originally published by DePauw University on June 4, 2009.

For more information about this piece, contact the publisher via e-mail.