Reports of affairs may not be ideal for the marriage of reality TV’s favorite octoparents, Jon and Kate Gosselin. But Kim Masters asks the bigger question: Will it be good TV?
Ask Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson—too much “reality” isn’t good for a marriage.
But is it good for a reality show? And can it be coincidence that the tabloids are raging with stories about alleged infidelity in the marriage of Jon and Kate Gosselin, whose outsized family is the subject of Jon & Kate Plus 8, just before the show’s fifth season begins on May 25?
That may sound like a ratings' windfall in the making. But several sources with a lot of experience in so-called reality programs say the answer may be short-term gain and long-term pain for The Learning Channel, which relies on Jon & Kate as its biggest show.
“You can never overestimate how hard people work to keep their TV show,” Harbert says. “There can be a lot of forgiveness if the TV show is going to go away.”
"Most of the time I'd say that's good publicity. For this show, I'd say it's a problem,” says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of the Comcast Entertainment Group (which includes E! Entertainment Television—and a whole lot of reality).
For those lucky enough to be unaware of this sordid tale, Jon and Kate are a Pennsylvania couple that, thanks to fertility treatments, wound up as the parents first of twins and then sextuplets. The show follows the family, insistently wholesome despite the fact that Kate has been cast as a twitchy control freak while Jon comes off as a man who can’t seem to complete a sentence. But now the octoparents, married nearly 10 years, have been making headlines thanks to suspicions about extramarital affairs—he with the third-grade teacher, she with the bodyguard. (The real shocker: The parents of eight have energy for sex!)
“That show is a monster, monster hit for TLC,” says an agent with lots of reality-TV experience. “It’s the only thing that has really worked for them. They build other things around those shows. It’s kind of a staple of what their network is about. And the show loses a lot of credibility when something like this happens.”
For TLC, which has capitalized on the adorableness of the Gosselin clan, this is serious business: The finale of Season Four pulled in more than 4.6 million viewers—a staggering number for a cable show. (There were already heavy hints of marital discord.)
A series like Jon & Kate can generate tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. It’s hardly just the original episodes; shows of this type repeat like crazy. “An episode can air 15 to 20 times over the course of a year,” Harbert says. “Shows like this make cable work.” But those repeats lose a lot of value when there are no more original episodes, he adds—a problem that would be compounded if the image of the family in the show has been compromised.
The Gosselins are doing well, too—at least financially, and the beauty for the cable channel is that they aren’t paid that much, in television terms. (They pull in an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 per episode.) Kate has another book coming out in the fall, which she described to Entertainment Weekly as “a memory-filled, full-of-family-tradition book around holiday food, meals, and cooking.” Awkward, that.
TLC is at least going to wring out some short-term gain by stretching the new season's premiere into a full hour. “We are in production for Season Five and moving forward as planned, while fully supporting the family and respecting their needs as they work through this challenging time," the channel said in a statement. "This show has always been about a real family dealing with real-life situations, and that will continue to be the case." Who says the Palins aren’t useful role models?
But while the kerfuffle will undoubtedly create a big bump for some upcoming episodes, it’s unlikely that there will be celebrations at TLC. “From my perspective, these allegations of infidelity are nightmarish for the producers who are trying to put forth the image of family unity despite the odds,” says a veteran producer of a long-running and top-rated reality series. “Good for short-term ratings but bad for the franchise.”
Certainly it’s not clear how the Gosselins can make the show work. A split would be an unpalatable spectacle, especially with eight kids involved. A phony reconciliation wouldn’t work, either. “If people think they’re faking it for the cameras—that’s when you get hurt [with the audience],” Harbert says.
There’s always the chance, of course, that the reconciliation will be real. “You can never overestimate how hard people work to keep their TV show,” Harbert says. “There can be a lot of forgiveness if the TV show is going to go away.”
A bit cynical, perhaps, but cynicism would be hard to avoid for those who make their living in the reality-TV world. A well-known executive producer of several series says a person with his job goes through a mix of feelings in a situation like this. At first you think this could be great for ratings, then you worry about the fate of the show. And then you think about the people in the show. “You think it’s bad for them” he says. “You think, what fucking idiots.”
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.