Though it hasn’t received a lot of attention in the mainstream press, in just under two weeks, on Tuesday, March 15, Discovery Communications’ TLC will be back with another series featuring members of the Duggar family. This one is called “Jill & Jessa: Counting On.”
The show was first tested on TLC late last year, in a three-part special. In January, during the gathering of the Television Critics Association, Nancy Daniels, TLC’s general manager, was asked about the Duggars and the special.
Variety wrote that day, Jan. 7, 2016, “‘We just aired the three specials during the holidays. They did very well,’ a clearly frustrated Daniels said, citing the viewership of more than 3 million. ‘The audience clearly cares about these girls.’
“‘As for the possibility of more episodes or a series centering around the sisters,’ Daniels said, ‘We’re still talking and considering it, but we have not made a decision yet.’”
The article indicated that Daniels was frustrated because she was hoping to talk just about another new TLC show, and not the scandal involving the Duggars.
The Variety piece also said, “That scandal, of course, was surrounding the Duggar family — stars of the net’s former hugely popular ‘19 Kids and Counting.’ … [N]ews surfaced that cast member and eldest son Josh Duggar had sexually molested teenage girls, including his sisters Jill and Jessa, who were also cast members on the now-canceled series, which was yanked from the schedule following the sex scandal. The year prior, TLC canceled ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ when allegations of the series’ star Mama June dating a convicted child molester made headlines.”
After the Duggar scandal first broke it took TLC almost two months before it announced it was canceling “19 Kids and Counting.”
This didn’t sit well with a number of folks, including veteran TV writer and critic Tim Goodman, who took the occasion of TLC’s delay in canceling “19 Kids and Counting” to pen a blistering critique of the programming of the network in The Hollywood Reporter.
“The Duggars have regularly gone out of their way to rail against other people not living up to their ‘traditional family values,’ which looked like a freak-fest on the very surface but was apparently so much uglier underneath,” Goodman wrote. His piece also said that all the Josh Duggar scandal “does, unsurprisingly, is thoroughly out one famous TV family of religious bigots as sanctimonious liars and, ahem, sinners, themselves. History is littered with the righteous having all kinds of dirty secrets. And who knows, maybe TLC wanted those to come out eventually because then the show would be even more of a gross curiosity and Americans would tune in to rubberneck. Ratings would rise. Profits would rise.
“It’s pretty much the business model at TLC to put on schlock and let everybody else praise it or loathe it so long as they watch it. TLC is or was home to ‘My 600-lb Life,’ ‘My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,’ ‘America’s Worst Tattoos,’ ‘Breaking Amish,’ ‘Gypsy Sisters,’ ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive,’ ‘Kate Plus 8,’ four shows about ‘Little People,’ ‘My Five Wives,’ ‘My Strange Addiction,’ ‘My Big Fat Fabulous Life,’ ‘Sex Sent Me to the ER,’ ‘Sister Wives’ and, well, a colossal collection of other crap.
“Once you get in the business of producing shows like that — shows meant to be little more than a televised circus — perhaps you lose the capacity to know when it’s time to pull the plug on one where sexual molestation and perhaps incest have taken place, right under the series’ mantra of pure conservative values.”
Personally, one thing I find disappointing about TLC bringing back the Duggars is that Discovery Communications started out in a much more high-minded space. Let’s briefly trace its history.
The following is from John Hendricks’ worthwhile 2013 memoir “Discovery: An Entrepreneur’s Story.” Hendricks is the founder of Discovery Communications.
Hendricks explains how his life changed one Sunday morning in February 1982, when he told his wife, Maureen, something he had been thinking about for a long time: “What would you think about a new cable channel that just showed great documentary series like ‘Cosmos,’ ‘The Ascent of Man,’ and Walter Cronkite’s ‘Universe’ series? You know, informative but entertaining shows about science, nature, history and medicine?”
Brilliant. I wish I had thought of it. Hendricks was a month shy of 30 when he told his wife his idea for the Discovery Channel. At that time, in February 1982, I had turned 30 a month earlier and I was a journalist writing about cable TV.
A good chunk of “Discovery: An Entrepreneur’s Story” tells how Hendricks came up with the idea for the channel and how he actually made it a reality. Then he expanded the company by adding more channels and venturing internationally.
Later, he talks about how Discovery Communications got into what I would call the seedier depths of reality TV.
It started, innocuously, with Discovery, in 2000, doing a U.S. version of the U.K. series “Changing Rooms,” called “Trading Spaces.”
Then came “Mythbusters” and “American Chopper.” Writes Hendricks: “[W]ith ‘American Chopper’ I was seriously afraid that we had overstepped our boundaries and potentially undermined the business philosophy that had gotten us this far. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was culturally blinded to the real stories of the Teutuls. My staff was not — and I can still remember the stricken look on their faces when I dismissed this new kind of programming as “Tattoo TV.” I was willing to trust their judgment on this, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.”
A few pages later Hendricks writes: “It wasn’t until we were several years into broadcasting this new generation of reality shows that it suddenly hit me that, without noticing it, Discovery had quietly broken through the cultural barrier that had always defined the company. … [The] principle with which I had founded the company was that 25 percent of the population would be interested in ‘educational,’ as opposed to ‘entertainment,’ television. But, with these shows we had found a new formula: We were creating nonfiction television that could be both educational and entertaining.”
As Hendricks notes: “Needless to say, this didn’t come without controversy. Some of our traditional viewers, as well as some critics, suggested that we were drifting away from our original charter and pandering to the mass audience and ratings. Well, it may have seemed that way to purists, but to me and my team at Discovery we were in fact continuing the quest that always had been at the heart of our network — bringing knowledge TV to everyone. Even if the subject was, most controversially, a little 6-year-old Atlanta beauty pageant phenomenon named Honey Boo Boo.”
Still, even if it was “knowledge TV,” as Hendricks insists, he also was smart enough to realize (as he wrote earlier in his book) that it became “clear during the Jon and Kate controversy that in order to protect the Discovery brand we would henceforth use TLC as our vehicle for taking controversial programming risks.”
Hendricks adds: “If this market expansion [into reality programming] has become self-evident to us, it hasn’t been entirely acceptable to portions of our viewing audience. They see the growing presence of reality shows on Discovery as proof that we are putting profits over quality content. I could not disagree more.”
Hendricks then notes that eventually he realized that he was wrong to have labeled Discovery’s reality TV offerings “Tattoo TV.”
Clearly going down the reality TV path, no matter how tawdry “knowledge TV” becomes, has proven very lucrative for Discovery Communications. During an earnings call after TLC had canceled “19 Kids and Counting,” another Variety article noted: “Andy Warren, Discovery’s chief financial officer, said restructuring and other charges were $19 million more than the $5 million the company took in same quarter in 2014, and he cited ‘the content impairment charge from canceling TLC’s ’19 Kids and Counting.’”
That’s real money and certainly helps to explain TLC’s eagerness to get back into the series business with the Duggars.
But I wish Hendricks and Discovery Communications had never taken the low road. A cynic would say that those in TV almost always choose that road, and perhaps that’s seemingly true, but not always.
Here’s a wonderful example of the higher road taken, from back in the 1950s. It’s courtesy of a delightful anecdote in the Oct. 23, 1954, issue of The New Yorker, in a profile by Thomas Whiteside of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who was then president of NBC. Weaver, who died in 2002, was the father of actress Sigourney Weaver.
Pat Weaver, who created both the “Today” show and the “Tonight” show, was having a meeting with his staff in his New York office about a new show he wanted to create called “Wide Wide World” that would air Sunday afternoons.
Weaver opened the meeting: “Now, some of you have sent me memos with ideas of ‘Wide Wide World.’ After reading them I think that perhaps what didn’t come through from my memo was what I thought the show [should be]. This isn’t to be a point-of-view show, but one in which we use television as communications to show the sort of places and events that normal, cultured, well-informed people want to see. Dismal Swamp, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles playing an ancient Greek play with Greeks — real Greeks, fellows — as performers. Why not? It would not be a hit, I admit, but it would be real nutsy. We should consider the artistic tastes of the whole populace.”
The group started coming up with ideas. Said one programming executive, “Suppose there were, say some strange festival, with some vestigial quality to it, where they get the seventh son of a seventh son and shoot him before breakfast. Some strange bit of provincial tradition. Would that qualify?”
“Weaver hunched himself in his chair and, with his knees drawn up, swiveled from side to side a couple of times. ‘Mmm,’ he said.”
A few minutes later in the meeting another programming executive said, “How about a murder trial at a county seat in Georgia?”
“‘On Sunday afternoon?’ Weaver raised his eyebrows. ‘Anyway, in urbane life I see no reason why such subjects should come up.’
“‘What do you mean by urbane, exactly?’
“‘Why, you know,’ Weaver said in an exaggerated drawl, ‘New York stuff.’
“Everybody laughed and then Weaver went on earnestly, ‘I think I know what I want but I’m not sure that you all do. I want a show that will give people a chance to go out of their homes to almost every part of our wide world that is America and participate in all our activities — a show that people will say has enabled us to become more mature, more cultured, and more urbane, and that will become a conversation piece whenever people meet.
“‘That is why I say no to … [a murder or murder trial]. … Fellows, don’t you see I’m trying to get something civilized?’”
Worthington Miner, who had been a legendary programmer at CBS and who then went to NBC, was in the meeting and then said, “Pat, isn’t what you are reaching for something like this: What would people best like to do on Sundays if they had the means and the time to travel about the country and see the best of what the country has, and wouldn’t you like to give them the experience of doing just that, through television?”
Weaver took a moment to absorb what Miner had said and then enthusiastically praised him. After that Weaver closed the meeting: “Fellows, I think we are on the right track. Now we know what we are going to be doing. ‘Wide Wide World’ is going to be great and we’ll sell it to Detroit as a noble experiment. Fellows, I’m going to take the weekend and think!”
“Wide Wide World” became a 90-minute program on Sunday afternoons, live, on NBC, from 1955 thru 1958. It was sponsored by General Motors, and the show took viewers from the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan to New Orleans. In its prime it was the highest-rated program on daytime TV.
The host of the program was Dave Garroway, who was also the host of the “Today” show. He ended every episode of “Wide Wide World” by reciting these four lines from the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem “Renascence”:
“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky —
No higher than the soul is high.”
You know, sorta like something Honey Boo Boo would say …