An open letter to David Zaslav, President and CEO, Discovery Communications:
Dear Mr. Zaslav:
We’ve all had our laughs by now.
Made the snarky comments and stupid puns.
Now it’s time for you to act like a grown-up, in the absence of other grown-ups.
Cancel that show.
The announcement about the Gosselins’ decision to divorce on last night’s episode of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” was no surprise; the marriage has been publicly imploding for months. Just in case any of that had been missed, there were relentless ham-handed promos promising a Very Solemn Announcement.
And as expected, the Gosselins mustered their most serious adult faces and said the show would of course continue "for the sake of the children.” Which didn’t quite make sense until we remembered that this couple would sell their brood to Madonna if it promised to bring them more attention, grown-up toys and nice vacations.
Viewers tuned in because they love to watch train wrecks that aren’t their own. The ad dollars followed.
But now it’s no longer a publicity stunt. It’s a PR problem for your company.
Discovery has always worked hard – in a Disney-lite way – to position itself as family-friendly. We would never expect you to euthanize the losers of Puppy Bowl. This corporate image supports your programming and your lucrative consumer products business: lots of educational toys, games, books and DVDs for kids and families under the safe Discovery name.
But the promos for other TLC shows that aired during last night’s episode makes it even more apparent how out of synch “J&K+8’s” present incarnation is with the brand you’ve built.
Where to begin?
A series following the Gosselins’ split and its impact on their very young children is a recipe for programming disaster. The couple was chosen solely for their reproductive talents and, even in happier times, never showed traces of insight, depth, introspection or even subtlety. They long ago handed over their kids in exchange for reality stardom’s routine perks: PAs with bottled water close at hand, celebrity encounters, glamour shoots and opportunities to capitalize on fame.
Assigned to navigate these delicate waters is your production company, which has little experience beyond turning out small-scale series about happy multiples families and medical marvels. So instead, they’ve converted “J&K” into a weekly infomercial. It’s only a matter of time before the Sham Wow and Snuggie guys show up.
And oh yeah: there are the kids, all under eight years old. Who are about to have their world ripped apart on national TV by this team of ill-equipped and/or disinterested adults. Little boys and girls probably already contending with whispers, teasing and comments about their family’s strange public lifestyle.
It sounds like you know what they’re missing, Mr. Zaslav. In a 2004 interview with a cable industry organization, you described your own suburban upbringing as “a nice childhood “ and reminisced about your parents and two brothers as “a nice family…a close family.” And you’ve raised three kids of your own, now a little older than the Gosselin Eight, who probably weren’t forced to hide in a production van until the cameras were ready to roll for a staged drop-in to a local store.
With the divorce news finally out, Discovery has some PR reputation management to address.
The media has been merciless in its mocking of the “do it for the kids” defense. And not just the tabs, entertainment shows and bloggers, but credible influential outlets like “Today” and CNN. News outlets that are seen by your most important stakeholders: advertisers, global business partners and – since you’re now a public company – shareholders. None want to see the investment tarnished.
As a cable network, you’re outside the reaches of the FCC. But you’ve got children’s rights groups, the state labor department and organizations working on behalf of young performers who are accelerating their complaints. It’s only a matter of time before Gloria Allred shows up.
And you have viewers who have now put the show in the same box as Britney’s meltdown: funny for a while until it just became sad.
So it’s time for the silliness to end.
The Gosselins have 35 more original episodes remaining in this current season’s deal, which are set to resume in August. Go pull the plug. Keep the show on permanent hiatus. Exercise your option in the contract. Exclude the current season’s episodes in your e-commerce DVD offerings. And then hold a press conference and get global credit for making things right.
Because if you really don’t care about those eight kids and the damage you’re inflicting on them well into their adulthood, at least do it for the stock price.