Why did almost 10 million people watch the season premiere of TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8, the reality show about a couple raising eight children? Well, some of those viewers were driven to the show after reading all the tabloid stories alleging that Jon, the man of the house, had an affair; in an age when tabloids are cross-pollinated with reality TV, we couldn’t help tuning in to see the Pennsylvania couple admit that their marriage was in trouble. And yet the show didn’t start with Jon and Kate Gosselin discussing the peril of their marriage or denying that they’d had affairs. It began as the episodes usually begin, with their kids, announcing to us that “we’re turning five!”, laughing, jumping, and mugging for the camera. The real reason Jon & Kate has sustained itself for five seasons is that the eight Gosselin children are the real stars; it’s the only show left on television about the joys, fears and silliness of small children.
Jon and Kate’s eight-year-old twins and five-year-old sextuplets aren’t perfect kids: they play with their food, burp, call each other names and make each other cry. But unlike the horrible children on other reality shows like Supernanny, the Gosselin kids are always portrayed as sympathetic and sweet. They’re also presented as individualized characters, starting with an early episode in which Jon and Kate defined the personalities of each child, calling one “our professor,” another one “Mommy’s helper.”
As the show has gone on, the kids have lived up to those descriptions. Fans talk about which character they like the best: some sympathize with Joel, who thinks he’s a wisecracker (“I’m funny!” he says after making a joke), others with the outspoken Mady, who once told Kate to “stop being my boss!” But all of the kids, no matter what their characterization, are smarter than their clueless, self-absorbed parents. That’s always been a popular TV formula, and it’s one producers are trying to imitate: TLC followed up Jon & Kate with a show about a large Arkansas family, 17 Kids and Counting (which became 18 Kids and Counting when the couple had another child), while the Octomom, Nadia Suleman, is developing a show about her family. You can bet that her kids will be the most likeable characters on that show.
Not that viewers might not prefer seeing a family comedy with better parents than Jon and Kate. But there’s nowhere else to go for an old-fashioned family show. Scripted shows on the major networks, both in the U.S. and Canada, have almost no children as regular characters; of the top 20 shows in the U.S. ratings, Two and a Half Men is the only one that ever had a child on it, and he was a deliberately uncute, unappealing boy. Now that he’s a teenager, no younger children have been brought in to replace him. We’re a long way from the ’80s and ’90s, when TV was filled with mischievous, adorable children like Rudy (Keisha Knight-Pulliam) on The Cosby Show, or Olivia (Raven-Symoné) who was added to The Cosby Show when Rudy was too old to be cute. Networks used to assume that little kids helped a show, appealing to both kids and adults; now children are virtually banned from prime time.
Some of this has to do with child labour laws. Jon & Kate is currently under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Labour over charges that, to quote Kate’s sister-in-law, the children “don’t want the cameras around.” Still, there are ways around the rules; the Olsen twins played a single character in Full House so that they wouldn’t run afoul of the laws on how many hours a child can work. Today’s shows lack children not because of labour laws but because the audience is split: kids often have their own TV sets, watching people their own age on the Disney or Family channels, while it’s assumed that adults prefer to watch other adults.
Or do they? When it comes to Jon & Kate, adult viewers are still eager to watch TV kids grow up before their eyes. Even Jon and Kate’s new-found status as gossip king and queen is linked to the public’s love of their kids. A Gallup poll found that 48 per cent of respondents are worried the Gosselin children might be “worse off” for their participation in the show. That may be why Jon reassured the press, and the audience, that the kids are still adorable and unspoiled by the cameras: “we have healthy, happy, well-adjusted, educated kids,” he told People magazine. “They’re bouncing around and having a good time.” He knows we’ll keep watching—as long as we hate the parents and love the kids.