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Reality TV gets religion

- 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.

So when real family life is stressful enough for the typical family with two kids, two jobs and a pile of bills to pay, why are so many tuning in to watch these large families, who undoubtedly have more stress?

"People are interested in families," Ms. Ross says. "They are interested in budgeting or sibling rivalry — the stuff to which average families, Christian or not, can relate. Whether a family is religious or abnormally large, we are all curious about how families live."

Mr. Radosh says viewers should keep in mind that even a family reality show may not be as real as it looks. There are still editors creating "characters" and a story line. Family squabbles get exaggerated, family members' personality quirks are edited to make them look like "the angry one" or "the instigator." If the show was just about normal family life like running errands and washing floors, viewers probably wouldn't watch.

"Keep in mind, there is nothing 'real' about reality TV," Mr. Radosh says.

Ms. Henson, from the Parents Television Council, agrees.

"People mean well," she says, "but they are not always going to be depicted well. They often turn into caricatures."

While family reality shows have found a place as good viewing for entire families, Ms. Henson is concerned for the stars of the show.

"I occasionally watch 'Supernanny,'" Ms. Henson says of the ABC series where child expert Jo Frost is sent to the home of children with behavior problems to offer strategies for both parent and child. "There is some useful information on there, but I also wonder about what kind of effect it will have on these kids five or 10 years from now, to have tantrums and their worst moments be shown on TV."

Ms. Henson also has concerns about cameras following children around almost constantly, which they surely must do for series such as "Jon & Kate" and "18 Kids." What kind of effect is that having on a child's natural growth and psyche? Imagine, for instance, how tough the middle-school years are. Then imagine if your moods and behavior were televised to a national audience.

"It is interesting to see how some families live," Ms. Henson says. "But I am not sure if having cameras in the home 24/7 is the best way to educate other parents."