When you think of bad TV, what’s the first channel that comes to mind? Obviously, MTV is a big culprit for airing Jersey Shore, but I’m thinking of a different station. That channel is TLC, whom I believe is responsible for some of the most sensationalist, invasive and sickening content on TV. With programs like 19 Kids and Counting, Hoarding: Buried Alive, and Toddlers and Tiaras, TLC consistently airs shows that exploit mental illnesses and misguided members of society for the purposes of entertainment.
Sure, TLC may have its fair share of viewers who only watch out of a sense of morbid fascination. Nevetheless, TV could be a far more enjoyable platform without this sort of rubbish.
I’m not quite sure when I became aware of the direction TLC was taking – I don’t believe I’ve ever actually sat down and watched a full episode of any of their programs. But that’s not to say I haven’t done my research. I have friends and family members who get a kick out of watching shows like 19 Kids, and I’ve seen my fair share of TV and Internet ads for their programming. It doesn’t take a full viewing of any show to understand how TLC operates: by indulging in some sort of twisted voyeurism, prying into the lives of dysfunctional families, mentally ill shutouts, and terrible parents.
First on my list of concerns is the show 19 Kids and Counting. If you’re unfamiliar, it follows the Duggar family from Arkansas, who have a whopping 19 children. The program, which is starting its eighth season this month, tracks the daily lives of the parents Jim Bob and Michelle, and their efforts to raise the kids. That’s tame enough, but the show also investigates stories like the premature birth of the Duggars’ 19th child, and the medical issues Michelle Duggar has faced from bearing so many children.
There’s something unsettling about a series that treats this family as a sideshow. The program exists purely because the act of having 19 children is an abnormality. What’s more, Jim Bob and Michelle are evangelical Christians, and their faith is spoken about on the show, where it becomes another detail to gawk at. 19 Kids screams, “Look at these weirdos! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to deal with this?”.
The theme of voyeurism continues with the show Hoarding: Buried Alive. Here the camera crew seeks out people who feel compelled to fill their houses with never-ending piles of possessions, until the environment is impossible to live in.
These “hoarders” obviously have varying degrees of emotional and mental problems, but yet the TLC program exploits their difficulties. The show navigates the stacks of boxes and tours rooms reduced to narrow alleys, with walls of junk on all sides. Eventually the hoarders are offered help, but that doesn’t discount the fact that we’re meant to derive some kind of demented entertainment out of the earlier scenes of clutter and depression.
For the sake of a third example, consider Toddlers and Tiaras. It tracks the efforts of parents to coach their young daughters as miniaturized beauty queens. The children are made-up (even given fake tans) by professional beauticians, and given disturbingly sexualized outfits to wear during their stage appearances. The girls then parade about in specialized modelling shows, to the delight of their beaming parents.
Unsurprisingly, this show just made headlines again, when three-year-old Paisley Dickey was dressed up for a show as the Julia Roberts prostitute character from Pretty Woman. The costume was intended to get a laugh from the assembled parents, but to most sane individuals, it reads as a horrible decision on the part of mother Wendy Dickey.
Dickey tried to justify the costume to TMZ, claiming she’s a responsible parent who takes her kid “to church every week”. That did little to assuage the criticism about a show that sees mothers and fathers rebuking their daughters for losing pageants. The show only reinforces the idea that artificial, premature beauty is the only way to be successful or earn Mommy and Daddy’s respect.
If TLC only aired one show like this, I might be able to let it slide. But the channel’s past and present roster also includes trash like (Jon and) Kate Plus 8, My Strange Addiction and Sister Wives. Plus 8, as many know, documented the marital troubles of a husband and wife raising 8 children. Sister Wives follows a polygamist with four wives. More than half this channel’s programming revolves around these splintered pieces of American society, and it constantly encourages us to laugh and stare in disbelief.
It’s intriguing that the “TLC” acronym stands for “The Learning Channel” and refers to the old adage “tender, loving care”. In reality, TLC teaches us too much about these people, to the point that it feels like an intrusion into broken lives, or a glorification of extremist behaviour. As for the “tender, loving care”, TLC practices the opposite, exploiting its stars to boost ratings and sell ads.
Some fans of TLC claim that the programming is a guilty pleasure. Some find it riveting in the sense of watching a train wreck. I don’t accept these justifications. Watching TLC implies that you are getting some kind of pleasure out of the programming, even if it is in a “can’t look away” sense. By continuing to tune in, you’re giving TLC more incentive to keep producing these kinds of shows. The channel will continue looking for new human train wrecks to feature, causing a continuous cycle of exploitation.
I feel that TV as a medium is capable of far better things – as well as mediocre, but harmless, content. Next time you feel tempted to watch an episode of Hoarding or Toddlers and Tiaras, consider what watching the program says about you. Not that you’re a terrible person, but that you are helping these shows stay on the air. If you choose not to watch, the subjects of TLC’s programming have a chance to escape being gawked at by millions, and maybe find the help they really need – instead of a TV paycheque.
What do you think about TLC and its series? Do you agree that they are prying and potentially hurtful? Or are you a fan, and have no problem with Hoarding or 19 Kids? I’d also like to hear from those who watch out of morbid fascination. What would it take to get you to stop watching? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
If you liked this article, check out some of my other TV-related articles below. You can also follow me on Twitter if you’d like to receive updates on new posts or check out the other random stuff I tweet!