The ‘Learning’ Channel’s Adventures in Morally Questionable Programming
On TLC’s website, it invites you to tune in this week for two back-to-back episodes of My Strange Addiction, where first you’ll meet a woman who eats couch cushions, followed by another who consumes household cleaners and detergent. But before these shows premiere, you will be introduced to The 8-Limbed Boy,an 8 year old whose parasitic twin is enjoined to his chest.
This is not aberrant programming for the channel but rather part of its regular lineup that includes the widely successful and now infamous [Jon and] Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting, The Little Couple, 600 Pound Mom, Sister Wives, Toddlers and Tiaras, and Hoarding: Buried Alive. Its difficult to argue with Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams when she labels the channel “the mental illness network.”
Its most recent addition, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” (which was not renewed for a second season) adds to a plethora of programming that houses the deeply conservative, the bizarre, the extraordinary and the mentally ill, all so its voyeuristic audience can gaze at these stories in one single place.
As Nancy Franklin writes in The New Yorker, “TLC’s programming is all about babies, weddings, and families in extremis, and yet there’s something inhumane at the center of it all.” According to the website, programming emphasizes “Family, Home, Style, Cooking,” ostensibly in that order.
Billed as a channel that prioritizes learning, education, and information, TLC, when it debuted in the 1970s, centralized nature, current events, technology and history—all formatted documentary style. But over the past couple of decades, as reality TV, in particular, became so popular, the channel sought to become more competitive and remedy its floundering ratings. More sensational programming eclipsed the documentary programming on which the network was founded and the current hodgepodge of characters and shows was born.
The idea that putting undo spotlight on those with physical deformities, mental illness, or those unable to fully consent (i.e. children) is exploitative is nothing new. News stories abound about the tragedies that have befallen multiples who have lived a significant portion of their lives in the spotlight. The potential dangers and abuse of girls as young as 3 being groomed for beauty pageants has been a topic of concern since the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case. And the perils of obesity have even made the First Lady’s agenda. But TLC’s lineup seems to bypass ethics and—dare I say—morality?
The program 19 and Counting showcases the Duggars, a devout family who is opposed to contraception and just had their 19thchild. In a recent People magazine interview, the Duggars revealed their interest in perhaps having a 20thchild despite the real medical dangers to both Michelle Duggar and her potential child.
Hoarders: Buried Alivefollows people who live among the filthiest residencies imaginable that are piled high with trash, rodents, and various types of kitsch. But there are those who argue that network shows such as Hoarders and My Strange Addiction aren’t exploitative but rather empathetic, de-stigmatizing, and educational around issues of mental illness. Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz writes:
I don't think "Hoarders" can be accused of cynicism. It's sincerely empathetic. It depicts extreme behavior, but only as a means of finding a colorful analogue for a psychological process that "normal" people go through every day: the struggle to identify obsessive and/or self-destructive behavior and then do something about it. The series isn't solely a rubbernecking, voyeuristic freak show—though that's the main selling point from the marketing department's standpoint.
Still the popularity of these shows and their rising viewership raises interesting questions about exposure, exploitation, and ethics. I’m all for educational programming, especially around issues of mental illness, but TLC is walking a fine line.
Courtney Young is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @cocacy.
- Teaching Consent: When Is it Too Early to Talk Sex, Boundaries and Bodies?
- Coast To Coast, College Sexual Assault Survivors See Gains
- Love Triangles With a Side of Sex-Ed: Welcome to “East Los High”
- NWL: ‘Old Enough to Get Pregnant, Old Enough to Decide’
- How This North Carolina Bill Will Restrict Health Care for Minors