The Unseen Realities of 19 Kids and Counting

“Reality TV promises its audience revelatory insight into the lives of others as it withholds and subverts full access to it.” — Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture

19 kids and counting

It finally happened. After almost a decade of being America’s favorite oversized Evangelical family next door, the Duggars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting are experiencing a scandal for which there might actually be repercussions.

Here is (some of) what we know so far:

  • On Thursday May 21, InTouch published a police report indicating allegations that oldest son Josh Duggar was accused of child molestation in 2006. His father Jim Bob waited more than a year to report the accusations.
  • Josh Duggar has since apologized and resigned as Executive Director of the Family Research Council (FRC).
  • Various blogs and websites are now uncovering many of the less often discussed aspects of the Duggars religion and lifestyle. Buzzfeed, for instance, has a post on the homeschooling practices the Duggars promote via 19 Kids and Counting.
  • Other media outlets have reported that the allegations about Josh Duggar have been circulating on the Internet for years. (This is true. I first heard about the allegations some time ago.)
  • TLC has pulled, not canceled, episodes of 19 Kids and Counting. You can still watch full episodes on TLC.com and there remains significant demands for cancellation.
  • As of May 27, 19 Kids and Counting has lost advertisers including General Mills and Walgreens.
  • While it seems that the scandal has simmered down over the long weekend, expect more news to spiral in the coming days until TLC makes a definitive decision on the future of 19 Kids and Counting.

Coincidentally, I wrote a final paper on 19 Kids and Counting for my Media, Culture & Power in International Communications course two weeks ago. (Snaps for grad school.) For the past month, I have been researching everything from the Duggar family and the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) to representations of extreme lifestyles on reality television to the branding of TLC and Discovery Communications. Needless to say, I have been following this scandal more closely than I ever paid attention to the similar fallouts that occurred with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Jon & Kate Plus 8.

Much of what is being written across the Internet right now focuses on the scandal itself – especially the cringeworthy behavior of various Duggars over the years. Yet what is not being discussed is how a show like 19 Kids and Counting is an integral part of a complex media system.

When you examine a show like 19 Kids and Counting, you quickly realize that more is going on than you could ever imagine. These are the main points we should focus on when we talk about the Duggars, the media empire they’ve built, and what is at stake for TLC/Discovery Communications.

Meet the Duggars

The Duggars made their cable television debut in the 2005 special 14 Children and Pregnant Again! TLC aired four additional specials before 19 Kids and Counting – then called 17 Kids and Counting – premiered in 2008.  Now in its tenth season, TLC has broadcast more than 200 episodes of 19 Kids and Counting, making the show one of the channel’s longest running and most successful reality series. Currently, the series is posting some of TLC’s highest rated telecasts in years.

19 Kids and Counting normalizes the every day activities of this supersized American Evangelical family. A typical 30-minute episode of 19 Kids and Counting follows the Duggars as they go about mundane everyday tasks including meals, homeschooling, laundry, shopping and doctor’s visits. But like any reality television series, 19 Kids and Counting provides “viewers with an unmediated, voyeuristic, and yet often playful look into… the ‘entertaining real’”(Ouellette and Murray 5). “The entertaining real” of the Duggar family has been carefully constructed even as the family extended their sphere of influence to include books, family blogs, and a strong social media presence.

Overtime the Duggars have a “built family like a company” and through that company, they are promoting a specific Evangelical lifestyle.

Extreme Motherhood, Extreme Conservatism

The Duggars follow the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and Quiverfull, two Christian Evangelical movements founded and supported by Bill Gothard. (Gothard stepped down from his position in 2014 following a sex scandal.) Although 19 Kids and Counting often shows the Duggars attending church services, mission trips, or religious conferences, the family’s specific Evangelical beliefs are rarely explicitly stated on the series itself.

Quiverfull is a pro-purist lifestyle where women forego all birth control options and motherhood is viewed as essential women’s work. Quiverfull followers view women’s liberation as the cause of societal problems including abortion, divorce and premarital sex. Quiverfull women are expected to subservient to their husbands and fathers.

19 Kids and Counting establishes the Duggar family – particularly the Duggar men – as prime examples of successful Evangelicals because of their multiple children and financial stability. Thus, the public recognition and admiration of the Duggars has become vital for Quiverfull’s sustainability. The movement is small but growing with an estimated tens of thousands of followers.

Profiles in People Magazine also normalizes Quiverfull practices.
Profiles in People Magazine and US Weekly also normalizes Quiverfull practices.

As public Evangelicals, the Duggars are given considerable access to conservative politicians in the United States. Through their various social media platforms, pro-LGBTQ discrimination robocolls, and Josh Duggar’s position with the FRC, the Duggars have become vocal mouthpiece for the conservative right. (It is also unsurprising that one of their most vocal supporters is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee always has been on #TeamDuggar.) Until this past week, the popularity of 19 Kids and Counting remained unaffected by the Duggars’ political beliefs and advocacy.

TLC and Discovery Communications

There is a running joke about The Learning Channel: When did the cable channel stop teaching? What began as an educational channel formed by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1972, has evolved into a privately own cable network. Seemingly every show on TLC focuses on extreme behavior and grotesqueries. Above all, TLC is targeted towards female viewers and the success of 19 Kids and Counting has been integral to this brand development.  As Jack Dickey recently wrote in Time, the channel “reaches the women of Middle America by parading unusual humans before them and hoping… that viewers relate to their struggles”. Primetime reality series like Little People, Big World, Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 19 Kids and Counting have all become synonymous with the TLC brand.

TLC’s current slogan is “Everybody Needs A Little TLC”. It centers on familial love.
TLC’s current slogan, “Everybody Needs A Little TLC,” emphasizes familial love. No matter the family.

Most significantly, without 19 Kids and Counting – and other similarly controversial reality shows centered around extreme lifestyles – Discovery Communications would not be experiencing unprecedented international successes. Not only does Discovery own most of its programming (limiting foreign licensing fees), but most of its shows – even undeniably American reality series like 19 Kids and Counting – translate well globally. For Discovery, the Duggars are essentially an exportable commodity.

But the landscape of cable television industry has significantly changed. Competition from on-demand services and online streaming websites means that global mass media enterprises like Discovery must constantly evolve. As Discovery continues to define and redefine itself during the golden age of television, the prominence of its standing as a global network has only just begun. The Duggars have been key contributors to this success.

The Future of 19 Kids and Counting

 “Perhaps when the very idea of a cable subscription begins to seem antiquated, strong brands may all that’s left standing,” wrote Jack Dickey in his April 2015 profile of Discovery CEO David Zaslav. In a time when reality television stars must have marketability beyond the limits of a television series, TLC’s branding is what separates it from many cable networks.  In early May, Discovery launched TLCme, a hub for original digital content. The site is essentially a lifestyle blog that is heavily dependent on TLC’s main personalities. Articles about the Duggars dominated the site until the InTouch article broke.

Much of what I’ve written here appeared in my final paper on 19 Kids and Counting. Two weeks ago, I concluded that the Duggars were integral to TLC’s brand and that their sphere of influence would continue to grow despite more than a few pointedly political public appearances and posts on social media. I also wrote this: “Only a moral scandal, such as the child molestation accusations that led to the cancellation of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, could end the Duggar’s fame. So far, the Duggars have managed to avoid the impact of such a scandal.”

It seems that the hypothetical scandal I alluded to is happening now. I’m genuinely curious what will happen next. When you look beyond the religious and political practices of the Duggar family, 19 Kids and Counting is essential programming for TLC and Discovery Communications. If the network can find a way to keep the Duggars on the air, they will. (And yes, there is a double standard in how a Christian family is treated versus the family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.)

Much of what happens next is significantly tied to the Duggars’ role as public Evangelicals. Even without 19 Kids and Counting serving as their primary form of Christian ministry, the reach of the Duggars, the IBLP and Quiverfull is massive. I honestly don’t believe America’s favorite Evangelicals next-door are going away any time soon.

Additional References:

Jack Dickey. “The Cable Boss: Why David Zaslav is the Biggest Guy in Television.” Time 13 April 2015: 42-47.

Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: New York, University Press, 2009.

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4 thoughts on “The Unseen Realities of 19 Kids and Counting”

  1. The story gets exponentially more disturbing as more details come out. In addition to what you’ve already linked in your post:

    -The language of Josh Duggar’s apology statement is extremely disturbing in and of itself. He focuses more on how continuing his crimes would ruin his life, rather than on how it all hurts his victims. Josh’s statement, as well as Jim Bob and Michelle’s statement, dismiss the multiple sexual assaults Josh committed as “teenage mistakes.” They almost perfectly follow the template for changing the PR game as described in “A Grand Deception: The Successful Response Of Sex Offenders” by Boz Tchividjian. (SOURCES: http://boz.religionnews.com/2015/05/15/a-grand-deception-the-successful-response-of-sex-offenders/ and http://www.intouchweekly.com/posts/josh-duggar-breaks-his-silence-regarding-child-molestation-allegations-58978)

    – Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar initially claimed that they sent Josh away for a summer to a legitimate sex offender treatment/diversionary program, but later Michelle indicated that Josh was actually sent away to do hard labor helping a family friend’s renovation business for four months. Jim Bob justified this by claiming he feared that exposure to “real” predators in a treatment setting would make Josh worse. (SOURCES: http://www.intouchweekly.com/posts/bombshell-duggar-police-report-jim-bob-duggar-didn-t-report-son-josh-s-alleged-sex-offenses-for-more-than-a-year-58906 and http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2015/05/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-josh-duggar-police-report.html)

    – Perhaps more concerning, there is no mention by Jim Bob or Michelle Duggar that any of Josh’s victims received support and counseling at all, let alone from licensed therapists trained specifically in how to help abuse survivors. On top of that, the homeschooling programs that the Duggar family publicly advocates using are, at best, highly problematic on the topic of how to deal with sexual abuse. Victims are told to question and evaluate what they did to “tempt” or “defraud” their attacker, stating that it’s likely the reason God allowed the attack to happen was to teach the victim a lesson. Then there is the issue of extreme and immediate forgiveness the victim is required to give their attacker. Holding on to any bitterness, anger, or resentment over the attack is considered a worse sin than the attack itself, because it is a sin against the spirit rather than the attacker’s initial sin against the body. (SOURCES: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2015/05/what-did-josh-duggars-counseling-look-like.html and https://defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/how-josh-duggar-is-getting-away-with-it/ and http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2015/05/josh-duggar-and-the-tale-of-two-boxes.html)

    – When Jim Bob Duggar ran for Arkansas State Representative in 2002, his website stated that he believed sex crimes, specifically rape and incest, should be capital offenses warranting the death penalty. (SOURCE: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/josh-duggars-father-said-incest-798045) You’ll note that when his son molested several of his daughters between 2002 and 2003, Jim Bob helped Josh avoid the criminal justice system altogether. Major hypocrisy, especially when you consider the outrage Jim Bob should supposedly feel as the father of multiple victims.

    – On an episode of “19 Kids & Counting” in 2008, Josh Duggar casually joked about incest between his twin siblings, John David and Jana. (VIDEO: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/josh-duggar-jokes-incest-2008-797889) Given how little sex education the Duggar children receive via their homeschooling programs, it seems unlikely that the youngest Duggar children would know, explicitly and in detail, what constitutes healthy and normal sibling affection and what does not. Even if they did know, the fact that the lines between siblings and parents are so often seen to be blurred on the show — older Duggars acting as parental authority figures to their younger siblings, a “buddy system” delegation which Jim Bob and Michelle frequently say on camera is essential to keeping the household running — it makes it that much harder for a young child to break the social contract and rat out an older sibling pseudo-parent to an actual parent for abusing them. Homeschooling and a church-centered social life also mean that the Duggar children have few opportunities to bond with outside adults to whom they could safely trust and report abuse to. All of these factors make me worry that a supposed “joke” like this could be disturbingly close to the actual truth in the Duggar household.

    – The extent of Josh’s “treatment” seems to be one “stern talking-to” by church elders (who never warned their flock about a potential predator in their midst), followed by a second talk with fellow church member and Arkansas State Police trooper Joseph T. Hutchens. Even though by law he was a mandatory reporter, Hutchens did not officially report Josh to his fellow police or any state child welfare agencies, nor did he launch an investigation into the charges at all. By the time an actual investigation happened, the statute of limitations for prosecuting Josh for these crimes had passed. Arkansas State Police trooper Joseph T. Hutchens himself went to jail in 2007 after being convicted on child pornography charges. Hutchens was released from jail in 2010 but re-offended, and is now back in jail serving a 60-year sentence. (SOURCE: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3091071/PICTURED-State-trooper-let-Josh-Duggar-wake-alleged-child-molestation-charges-later-went-prison-child-pornography-charges.html) I can’t be the only one who’s concerned that this police officer may have “mentored” Josh in how to become a more stealthy sex offender.

    – Josh’s wife, Anna Duggar, now claims to have known about Josh’s “offenses,” as she calls them, as much as two years prior to marrying him. But that’s likely not 100% true. What Josh probably told her was that he had “succumbed to temptations” but had been “healed/forgiven through God’s grace,” a.k.a. using minimizing language and framing the confession so that any follow-up questions, any sliver of doubt on Anna’s part would be questioning one of the very foundational beliefs of their religion, that God forgives our sins. (SOURCES: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2015/05/anna-duggar-and-the-silencing-power-of-forgiveness.html and http://boz.religionnews.com/2015/05/15/a-grand-deception-the-successful-response-of-sex-offenders/ and http://www.intouchweekly.com/posts/josh-duggar-breaks-his-silence-regarding-child-molestation-allegations-58978) Josh and Anna have two sons and one daughter, and Anna is currently pregnant with a fourth child. I can’t help but imagine a nightmare scenario in which a cycle of assault-forgiveness-concealment continues ad infinitum, with Anna’s Christian forgiveness and non-reporting enabling Josh to potentially molest their children.

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