- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reality TV has been a pop-culture phenomenon for almost a decade. American viewers have seen engagements made and vows broken, B-list celebrities learn to dance and Donald Trump fire would-be entrepreneurs. Chefs and fashion design stars are born and lots of folks are humiliated.

However, occupying a growing number of slots on the reality TV schedule is a kinder, gentler kind of programming, one where faith is a subtle co-star and family values trump “Survivor”-style manipulation and bug eating.

Topping the list: “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” “Little People, Big World,” and “18 Kids and Counting,” on TLC. ABC’s “Wife Swap” also surprisingly chimes in with families who hold fast to ideals — like the mother of eight who refused to attend a raunchy party and patiently explained why her family will stick with home-schooling.

Reality television actually does a better job of portraying Christians than scripted television does, says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council. The PTC is a group that advocates restoring responsibility and decency to television.

“Scripted television is hostile to people of faith for the most part,” she says. “Particularly members of the clergy and churches.”

Dena Ross, entertainment editor for Beliefnet.com, a spiritual Web site, says because most family shows are about the family, and not necessarily the faith, it is a much more subtle message for many viewers.

“These are all Christian families on these shows,” she says. “But they are not usually shown at church or saying Bible verses. They are more like living their faith. It appeals to non-Christians too because the faith isn’t thrown at them.”

On “Little People,” the Roloff children attend Christian school and the family has been shown praying before meals. Jon and Kate Gosselin, stars of “Jon & Kate,” have published a book with a Christian publisher and often speak to church groups.

The Duggar family of “18 Kids and Counting” are conservative, home-schooling parents of 18. They live a biblically inspired life — modest dress for the girls and having as many children as God gives them are two examples — but it just goes with the territory at their Arkansas home (which they built themselves and mention often that they have no mortgage as they live by faith-based principles of no debt).

“The weird part of ‘18 Kids’ is that they come off as a really well-adjusted, likable family,” says Daniel Radosh, author of the book “Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.”

“I imagine many people take the position, ‘If I ever had a family that large, this is how I would want to be,’” he says.

Well, not everyone. Internet message boards are, of course, full of snark about everything from the Duggars’ hairstyles to the oldest son’s recent marriage to a young woman whom he was not allowed to kiss until after the wedding. A trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky naturally sparked reaction on both sides of the cultural debate.

However, lots of people are watching the show, so in the end, the message that “this is how some families live” gets across to a wide mainstream audience.

“There are two ways to watch these reality shows,” Mr. Radosh says. “You can watch for pure entertainment or you can watch and maybe learn something.”

Out there in mainstream television land, viewers are probably doing a little of both. These shows have helped cement TLC’s place as the network of candid family shows. A new one, “Table for 12,” about a New Jersey family with two sets of twins and a set of sextuplets, was added to the lineup last week.

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