The quote that “There is no such thing as bad publicity” didn’t come from Groucho. Or David Geffen. It was Irish playwright Brendan Behan, who actually said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity, except your own obituary.”
But then there’s “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”
The TLC series is starting its fifth season with a PR mess that only the most naïve will consider beneficial. And it’s putting the first nails in the coffin of a peculiar reality TV genre: the feel-good supersized family show.
“J&K” is a top show on the Discovery-owned network and a tentpole for its rebuilt schedule. It follows the Gosselins, a mind-numbingly dull couple from a small Pennsylvania town. Kate is shrewish, Jon slacker-ish; it’s hard to imagine they ever had chemistry. The hook is that they’re parents of eight IVF-conceived kids: eight-year-old twins and five-year-old sextuplets.
“J&K” is an endless loop of sippy cups, tears and poop.
For those who change seats at restaurants to escape such families, it’s a freak show. But the genre’s struck a chord with those wanting to see people just like themselves on TV. And it’s quietly taken off faster than a 2-year-old at Disneyland.
These shows offer variations of the same theme: suburban families happy in their ordinariness. There’s chaos but positive values, often with Scripture tossed in, and always safe for kids to watch. The central characters have little charisma and rarely cope with any real crises. They’re video versions of that nondescript neighbor who drops by for coffee and recites every leaden detail of the day.
Now, it’s “Jon & Kate Plus 9 or 10.” And not because of a little bundle of joy. After weeks of infidelity rumors, paparazzi gotchas and on-screen tension, Kate’s on the cover of People magazine confirming marital problems, and Discovery’s issued a terse acknowledgment.
Some claim it’s a stunt to boost ratings or add sizzle to an aging franchise. The Gosselins’ recent deer-in-the-headlights reactions suggest otherwise.
But if that theory is true, heads should roll for such clumsy shortsightedness. Audiences love to watch meltdowns of the rich or famous who live far from their worlds. But they can find better examples of everyday rocky marriages close to home. Very possibly, in their home.
Discovery — which markets itself as family-friendly — doesn’t want angry parents forced to explain why Jon is holding hands with another mommy and why Kate keeps crying. And if viewers wanted to see an annoying single woman wrangling a litter while looking for love, there’s already Octomom.
But the beginning of the end of “J&K” affects the entire genre.
Television brilliantly makes reality-show casting seem random to the viewer. In fact, potential participants endure a battery of interviews and evaluations to ensure that they’ll be almost exactly what they seem. It’s the same reason talk shows prep guests with “pre-interviews” — so that carefully produced spontaneity won’t be ruined by surprises.
When it comes to casting ordinary people, producers seek as much assurance as possible that they’ll hold up under the glare of success. A solid show is a cash cow: for example, Discovery sells “J&K” DVDs and books and repurposes it internationally. So while an “Idol” or “Survivor” contestant might be a crapshoot, where would there be more longterm security than with people getting TV exposure for good parenting?
Jon and Kate have proven otherwise. The media — not just the tabs — have jumped on their troubles. And they’re handling the unending barrage of coverage with all the skill of a small town middle-class couple.
The new episodes, allegedly addressing the marriage, will get an initial ratings pop. But interest will wane as the Gosselins become not so happy but stay just as boring.
Discovery can easily cut the cord with “J&K.” But to all other supersized families with network shows, consider this fair warning. The media have discovered there’s huge public interest in the darker sides of your lives.
So it’s now open season. Which means jilted ex-lovers, embarrassing photos and new flirtations will be coming to light. So if your idea of good parenting doesn’t include the cover of the Star, you might want to rethink your priorities.