Trump’s Reality Show Has Peaked

I suppose this was inevitable. The President-Elect, our reality star-in-chief, lashed out against the show that built his celebrity and the network that sustained his brand for nearly a decade.

trump-apprentice

This shouldn’t be surprising. This is what Trump does. He uses Twitter to distract us from all the other messes he is causing. To distract us from Putin and Russia. But the PEOTUS mocked Celebrity Apprentice for low ratings reveals how Trump is utterly delusional. Here is why:

In the early-2000s, reality television exploded. These shows were inexpensive to produce, merged real life, entertainment and commercialism, and capitalized on emerging digital technologies. I remember watching the first season finale of Survivor with my parents (the “Rat and Snake” speech is classic television) and feeling like this was a huge moment that millions of people were invested in. (51.69 million viewers watched this episode.) While reality television was not unprecedented, everything about the genre was suddenly bigger. Both the sheer quantity of new shows and the size of the media personalities behind them. Reality TV has since evolved from a fad to a ubiquitous genre.

Two favorite pieces in 2016 tackled Trump and the role his celebrity . Ira Madison of MTV looked at how The Apprentice was purely an advertisement for the Trump Empire. Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed tackled the facets of Trump’s celebrity and why he must be analyzed as a celebrity, not a politician. Both pieces provide excellent context for the Trump reality show we are now living in. (Also read this piece about Mark Burnett and Trump on The Ringer.)

The reality genre crafted around the ideas of voyeurism. Audiences tune in to reality series because it so unlike what they experience in their own lives. (Are you an Alaskan fisherman? Why are you watching The Deadliest Catch?) Eventually all reality shows reach their expiration date. This is especially true of the game-doc series which become repetitive season after season.

So the classic game-docs still airing – Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, MTV’s The Challenge – are their respective network’s key reality programs. Each show has tie-ins with tabloids, aftershows, podcasts, social media, etc. Their cast members become network personalities (this is particularly true of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and The Challenge, which sees the cast members return for spinoff after spinoff.) And so, these shows depend on spectacle through casting to sustain their ratings and their brands.

Popular reality shows are also easily derailed by scandal. TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting is my standard example for this argument. For more than a decade, the Duggars were provided a platform to present and normalize their unorthodox family structure and extreme Evangelical beliefs. 19 Kids was TLC’s longest running and highest rated program. This lasted until the scandal forced TLC to cancel 19 Kids. TLC has since launched a Duggars spin-off, Counting On (centered around the Duggars 2.0) but this series is no where near as popular as the original series. It never will be.

Back to Donald Trump and The Apprentice – On The Apprentice, Donald Trump was the spectacle. Audiences loved watching him in this element and delivering the catchphrase “You’re Fired!” Sure, Ivanka was there but this entire program was built around Donald’s showmanship.

Donald Trump is a spectacle.  He always has been. Neal Gabler, writing in 1998, explains that Trump’s blockbuster was so good that not even failure (his bankruptcies, his divorce from Ivana) could close it.

The second Trump announced his candidacy, the 2016 Presidential Election became the most surreal media spectacle of all-time.

Now that Trump is the President-Elect, his reality show has peaked. It has peaked because audiences have caught on to the gimmick. We know he is distracting us and gaslighting America.

And so, Donald Trump is the scandal most likely to bring down his own celebrity and the empire he built. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a failed movie star. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because they are tired of the Trump brand. And it is better to focus on derailing an unstable President-Elect by doing what he hates most: ignore him and deny him the satisfaction that you are watching.

(Hi, yes, my long hiatus is over. I plan on blogging from time to time. Periodic posts will follow.)

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Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0

Jill and Jessa 2

You probably heard by now, TLC has ordered a full season of Jill and Jessa: Counting On. If you didn’t know, I’m sorry to ruin your day. (But are you really that surprised? I did tell you this could happen and be successful.) But do not dismiss TLC’s continued commitment to the Duggars 2.0; this family and every nuanced aspect of their brand matters more than ever before.

Perhaps you have caught on to the extreme conservatism (and extreme progressivism for that matter) holding the United States hostage right now. The Duggars, as public evangelicals whose sole purpose is to normalize fundamentalist Christianity, are contributors to and a byproduct of the public sphere currently reshaping American politics and ideologies. Beyond that, as I’ve written before, 19 Kids and Counting and now Jill and Jessa: Counting On are part of a larger, complex media system. As much as you might hate the Duggars’ presence, they’re sticking around for a reason. Continue reading “Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0”

Matriarchy Wins: Law and Order: SVU Takes on the Duggars

Law and Order: SVU - Meet the Bakers. Starring the dad from Two of a Kind.
Law and Order: SVU – Meet the Bakers. Starring the dad from Two of a Kind.

In October,  NBC announced  Law and Order: SVU would tackle the Duggar family scandal. In spite of almost never watching SVU, I immediately knew this episode would capture my attention. (Gee, I wonder why?)

No other reality TV family has broadcast as many lies, secrets and falsehoods as the Duggars. They are the perfect public figures to build a standard, ripped-from-the-headlines, whodunit narrative around. But this episode of SVU presents an elaborate fantasy. The path the fictional patriarch and matriarch take to healing and redemption is unlikely to ever unfold in the real world space the Duggars occupy. Continue reading “Matriarchy Wins: Law and Order: SVU Takes on the Duggars”

19 Kids and Counting: Why A Duggar Spinoff Could Work

I’ve never understood this marketing campaign.
I’ve never understood this marketing campaign.

The Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting are many things. They are an unorthodox family. They are Conservatives. They are public Evangelicals. They are hypocrites.

In the week since InTouch Weekly published the police report about Josh Duggar’s acts of child molestation, tabloids, advertisers and networks have been quick to respond. You can no longer stream episodes on either Hulu or TLC.com. The latest issue of People, typically the Duggars #1 fan, also covers the scandal.

Casually pretending to not have a symbiotic relationship with the Duggars.
People Magazine: Casually pretending to not have a symbiotic relationship with the Duggars.

There are also rumors that TLC is considering developing a 19 Kids and Counting spinoff, which would focus on daughters Jill and Jessa.

I know what you’re thinking. How can TLC possibly be considering a spinoff? Hasn’t this family already gotten away with enough hypocrisy?

First, as I have previously written, 19 Kids and Counting is TLC and Discovery’s most profitable show. The network and mass media company will go to great lengths to keep any Duggars on television. Second, a spinoff centered around the Duggar daughters could be intriguing reality television and a potentially genius move.

For those not up on the lives of every Duggar, Jill and Jessa are both married and starting families. (Jill gave birth in May; Jessa is due in November.) They are also presumed to be two of their brother’s victims.

Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard
Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard

After 200 episodes, 19 Kids and Counting has become boring reality television. Like really boring. When the Duggars 2.0 began courtships, engagements, and families of their own, the show’s plots became redundant. There are only so many wedding and birth episodes a viewer can take. Even before the scandal broke, the show needed a major shake up. Obviously a child molestation scandal is a terrible way to generate new story material and interest in a long running series, but that is exactly what is happening. (Or at least, what TLC is presumably hoping will happen.)

Now consider this. The Duggars have gone to great lengths to keep much of their public lives and agenda separate from the image purported by their reality show. Even as the Duggars 2.0 began using social media (something they can’t do until they begin a courtship) and revealed their strong conservative political/social beliefs, the show itself remained rooted in the idea that the Duggars are just an abnormally large family living the American Dream. But the truth has come out and the aftermath is potentially devastating for both the Duggars and TLC.

For a spinoff to be successful and worthy of any viewers time, Jim Bob, Michelle and Josh must be removed completely. Josh Duggars deserves no platform to redeem himself. Neither do Jim Bob or Michelle, who have little purpose on their own show. (Their oldest daughters do most of the actual child rearing.)

If the focus does shift to Jill and Jessa, then the sisters must be as open and honest about their past as possible. The spinoff cannot keep any secrets from audiences anymore. Abuse is an unspoken reality about life in as an Evangelical. Because Evangelical churches are patriarchal institutions, abusers are protected from ramifications. For any Duggar to publicly discuss their experiences as abuse victims would rock the house of Bill Gothard, so to speak.

19 Kids and Counting has spent nearly a decade masking extreme patriarchy behind a veil of Christian family values. So yes, a Duggar spinoff centered around the Duggar women would be revolutionary. And if handled properly, it is the kind of show that might actually earn the (some) Duggars actual respect.

(An alternative scenario for a spinoff, and there are many, is perhaps more likely. But I prefer to imagine a Duggar spinoff as close to Breaking Duggar as possible.)

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.

Continue reading “The Unseen Realities of 19 Kids and Counting”