News

The New American Family

5/30/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

New England's spinster poet, Emily Dickinson, said famously that “Fame is a bee. It has a song. It has a sting. Ah too, it has a wing.”

Until recently, Jon and Kate have been hearing the song. The Pennsylvania couple, who've been raising their eight kids on camera for Discovery Networks's TLC, have mesmerized viewers with the drama of their seemingly imperiled marriage. The series' fifth-season premiere on Memorial Day — which included apologies for possible infidelities and Kate's musings on the family's future — drew nearly 10 million viewers, shattering ratings records.

The drama of real life has now intruded on reality. A series that set out to show how a wholesome family struggles while raising eight children is suddenly a soap opera. Guess which version viewers like better. If all goes well for Discovery, Jon & Kate Plus 8 promises to be one ratings gusher. Everyone wins, right?

For starters, the buzz over Jon's alleged affair has help boost an entire media category — celebrity magazines. Us Weekly, which put the couple on six covers, sold 1 million issues of the May 11 issue, a jump over a year ago. “The thing I loved about it is that it introduced new celebrities to the world of celebrity journalism,” Us editor Janice Min told the New York Post. The last two issues, she said, were even bigger hits: “Kate Gossellin: Mom to Monster” and “Inside Jon's Prison — What TV Didn't Show.”

Celebrity fans who seem to live off the very crumbs of information that tabloids feed them were also big winners. Readers found out, for example, all the juicy details about Kate's celebrity ways, her tummy tuck, how she's mean to the help, about the sister-in-law who's calling the series a fake, and Jon's hair transplants, his disengaged attitude and his wayward night with a teacher (he says nothing happened).

Media critics and columnists suddenly had fresh fodder, too, howling at the exploitation of the children by the parents and of the parents by Discovery. All that celebrity hubbub helped set an all-time ratings-high for Discovery's TLC. So pleased was it with the show's breakout performance, the network ordered another 40 episodes and is eager to see some momentum. With TLC's publicity machine roaring, and a Jon & Kate marathon building up to the May 25 opener, little wonder it was the most popular show on cable for the year.

Viewers are the biggest winners, though not many will admit it. We get a front row seat to a slo-mo demolition of a family. While some people no doubt have true empathy for a struggling couple, there is no doubt a certain self-satisfaction, or perhaps schadenfreude, that keeps us watching. Don't forget the popcorn!

An American Family, a 1973 series on PBS, chronicled the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., during a time when parents Bill and Pat Loud separated. As the Louds discovered, the camera magnifies and distorts. All this attention on the Gosselins lays bare the small, cruel acts that loved ones often inflict on one another in the grind of daily life, except now they are amplified and more damaging.

The biggest losers in all this? There are eight of them.

September