How TLC is Destroying Television

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 size of the family makes them into a sideshow attraction

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.

“Hoarding” is a TLC show that exploits mental illness 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.

“Toddlers and Tiaras” frequently comes under fire for its twisted values

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!

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  1. I think that possibly the way that TLC goes about displaying people and their problems is very low-value entertainment but it does have redeemable shows. Shows like Say Yes to the Dress, Cash Cab and Cake Boss don’t really hit on the problems that you mention. Even some of the shows that focus on one family or group of people don’t seem like they are aiming to exploit. These people obviously asked to be part of this show. I haven’t actually watch much of anything on their network (except Cake Boss. It is an addiction.) but from what I see or hear from others they actually seem to be trying to make the world except or learn how to help them. I mean they obviously do have the highly inappropriate shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, although all the same at least a whole lot of the world now knows that this is happening and people have stopped or tried to stop it. Jon and Kate is pretty bad but they did try to cancel before the divorce when they knew it was coming and have barely aired episodes since.

    I am not in total defense of them but I have actually been watching Cake Boss all day while doing homework today and they have their own like charity organization that they are constantly talking about and almost all of their commercials are either for their own shows or for charity organizations.

    And their are worst things out there.. like Jersey Shore which aims to help no one and influences young children in a very wrong way. And worse than that there is 16 and pregnant and Teen Moms which glorifies teen pregnancy and makes it something for people to be famous for. A&E shows Hoarders and Intervention which make me feel fairly ick, especially Intervention and they are the ones who started the whole filming Hoarders thing. Even Discovery has shows like this. It’s definitely not one stations problem.

    I honest think Slice is the worst with shows like In-Law Wedding Wars, Beautiful People, Dance Moms, Intervention Canada, Little Miss Perfect, Real housewives of.. (there are 6), Mob Wives, Til Debt do us Part, Rich Bride, Poor Bride and Plastic Makes Perfect. And Slice is without any of the charity work or redeemable shows. So yeah some of these shows are a problem with TV but not just TLC.

    • Glad you brought up the other stations. I don’t mean to say that TLC is the only channel airing bad content, but when I consider the majority of their roster, the ratio of bad to good shows is higher than most stations. I guess what really set me off was the report of the recent Toddlers and Tiaras controversy.

      Perhaps what’s most frustrating is that TLC and similar channels present this stuff for us to watch, when all we really want to do is stop what is happening on screen: wrench away the beauty products from the crazy mothers, or tell the shows to stop chasing after hoarders.

  2. I never seek out shows like these, but when you happen upon them it’s like you can’t look away. The worst I ever saw was E!’s Bridalplasty, which mashed together the worst of the wedding and beauty industries in an exacerbating gameshow format, rather than just documenting or intervening like TLC does. In a way it feels like you’re watching an anthropology documentary on some strange, completely alien culture. I kept expecting it to cut to an academic that would explain the significance of these rituals in context with the social norms and trends that lead to it.
    It’s interesting to think where the line is, though, between entertaining documentary series, and exploitative entertainment, or whether there really is one. A lot of TLC’s shows seem very innocuous on the surface – they’re not causing this behaviour, just documenting it or even trying to help – but underneath it there is definitely a profiteering, voyeuristic base.

    • Yeah, the latter of your points is what really inspired this article. I can understand doing a couple of short TV news pieces about some of these situations, but when you’re running an 8-season series, it implies, “These people are wackos. Tune in every week to see what our monkeys have been up to!”

  3. love cake boss btw. In response to the article its not like tlc preys on these people. the freaks are paid by tlc to turn their lives into publicly gawked-at spectacles. its a good way for them to make some extra cash being the freaks that they are. TLC gives people a chance to stare and openly mock these circus side-shows of our society and feel better about our own mental stability in reflection of these psychologically fractured nutjobs since they cant do it in public. its the equivalent of looking at fat people falling or watching some idiot hurt himself trying to show off on youtube. you can laugh as much as you want and not feel guilty for the person behind the privacy of your screen.

    • Fair enough, but it’s worth questioning TLC’s moral compass when they stand to make a lot of money themselves. I just want people to take a moment to remember who’s being taken advantage of here. It’s fine to get a laugh out of someone’s misfortune, but there should be some limits of good taste, don’t you agree? Thanks for your feedback!

  4. TLC use to stand for something, about 10 or so years ago.. “The Learning Channel”. Now its a horror show that basically makes you unlearn everything..harsh yes, but I use to enjoy the channel. It use to have very interesting and thought provoking shows, but something drastically changed. I’m guessing it wasn’t being profitable enough and its viewership was dwindling. So they slowly changed it into a sensational escapade of utter trash. I can’t really blame them, in our ADD fueled society (at least increasingly so) they want their shows to keep your attention as long as possible, pulling as many gimmicks as possible. So no I don’t watch it anymore.. lol, to say the least. If their pulling in alot more viewers and advertisement dollars, then I’m sure they consider it a success. To me its a complete waste of a channel now.

  5. I agree pretty much. I hate that everything is so fake now as well. What happened to valuable information? Now its just insulting to your intelligence. The crap they try to make you believe! If I wanted ridiculous stories I would read “The Enquire”

    • Lets not forget, most possibly the worst piece of television ever produced, a truly sad and almost angering show: Honey Boo Boo. This is madness! Exploitation of poverty, child obesity, the failure of our educational system, and bad parenting all in one show! This girl needs help. Childhood obesity and intellectual mediocrity are not things to be celebrated! Here we have TLC heralding this morbidly obese, mentally underdeveloped (due to environment not disability) child as some kind of celbrity?! This is unacceptable and really makes me sick. As for the demise of the channel: It originated as a purely educationally channel publicly funded and produced by NASA. Reagan decided it was not worth the govt dollars and privatized it. Follow the dollars and here we are with Hoarders and Honey Boo Boo. FYI one of Romney’s bright ideas was to cut funding for PBS. Hmmm cyclical history is fun!

  6. How true, TLC appeals to the base human instincts that we supposedly abandoned on our long painful journey to becoming civilized, we tell our children to be kind, inclusive, compassionate and charitable and in one fell swoop TLC eradicates all of those noble aspirations, they call themselves the “learning Channel” but what are they teaching, cruelty, bullying, bigotry and hatred, they teach us how to be intolerant, exclusive and ignorant.

    • Are you referring to the auto-generated ads placed there by WordPress? Because I don’t control those; they come with the blogging platform. And I’m not really sure how the presence of ads ties in with what I wrote, anyway…

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