For the past few weeks the internet, gossip mags and entertainment shows have been buzzing about the TLC reality series Jon and Kate Plus 8. Topics have included Jon’s fidelity, Kate’s makeover and, finally, the status of the Gosselin children, 6 of which are sextuplets.
What is missing in the chatter is a key element that makes reality television truly successful: conflict. Without conflict virtually every reality show would suffer in content and ratings. Doesn’t matter if the show is high brow or low; conflict is what drives the engine. Whether losing weight, winning $1 million, finding a spouse or catching giant crabs in the Bering Sea: Conflict reigns.
Jon and Kate Plus 8 – now in it’s 5th season – is not immune from this basic ingredient of injecting tension to drive story and ratings. Look at ANY reality show and notice how often conflict is teased, especially up front in the intro or just as the episode is going to commercial break. The producer’s intention is to have you – the viewer – hooked into seeing what will happen next. Sort of like the fascination of witnessing a train wreck – we as humans are frozen by the spectacle of the explosion and carnage, and will worry about the bloody bodies being identified later.
(It should be noted that tv producers are expert at creating conflict where little often exists, constructing make believe tension out of whole cloth. All it takes is a small skirmish on set, a misunderstanding or an unintentional remark – poof! The “story” will morph into a fight of epic proportions. Welcome to the off screen prodding of contestants and the magic of editing tricks that can re-assemble disconnected sound bites into a whole different conversation on screen.)
In the case of the Gosselin’s, notice if you will that much of the behind-the-scenes chatter about their personal lives cropped up just weeks and days before their series’ debut. Coincidental? Probably not. Rather ingenious of TLC to fan the flames of dischord to create publicity, web traffic and word-of-mouth, which resulted in nearly 10 million viewers for their season premiere.
So, what about the kids? I could write a small tome about the use of small children to drive a show and series. It’s not new; just check out Supernanny or Wife Swap. But there are other far more talented commentators who are better at weighing in on what some are now calling “exploitation.” Good.
Perhaps the genre of REALITY should be re-examined to identify those participants who are being manipulated in network and cable’s crass effort to make a media buck. Whether it’s Wipeout, Survivor, Big Brother or Bridezilla. Over 18? Ok, you should know better than to make a fool of yourself on tv. Broken hearts or falling into mud pools not withstanding. You’re on your own, friend. But under age 10? Sounds like parental pimping to me. If the kids have a SAG or AFTRA card, fine. There are strict union rules for hours of day working and tutors on set. But Reality TV? They make up the rules as they go, kids be damned.
Finally, what one should really be concerned about is the opinion expressed by one of Jon and Kate’s producers last week. To paraphrase their comments, “their (Jon and Kate’s) fighting and potential break-up is terrible. But it sure makes for great television.”
Sad…and, unfortunately, right on the mark.