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Children Should Not Be Props on Reality TV

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In the beginning, "Jon & Kate Plus 8" had a sweet charm. The little ones would scamper and shout toddler things, as their harried parents tried to keep order.

This was Americana for the 21st century. Fertility treatments let Jon and Kate Gosselin have a set of twins, then sextuplets. And reality television gave the rest of us a kitchen-eye-view of a very chaotic family in Wernersville, Penn. The show became a huge hit for the TLC cable network.

Now that Jon and Kate Gosselin have split up, we must question whether a family undergoing divorce should be subject to such detailed public scrutiny -- but also whether these cameras ever should have been put in the faces of children to begin with.

Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., has long condemned the use of children in reality-TV shows. "To shoot the happenings and excursions of eight kids takes a lot of video equipment, a lot of kid manipulation and, generally, a lot of demands on the kids," he has written.

"When the kids were younger and living in a nuclear family, it was cute," McCall told me, "like The Family Circus cartoon." But the scene has turned darker and the "reality" less real. The children are older and more vulnerable to domestic tension. And though the parents plan to share custody, the children are staying in the fancy home provided by the cable company.

"Jon & Kate Plus 8" is far from this genre's worst offender. The infamous "Octomom," Nadya Suleman, is busy signing contracts to let production companies follow her and her 14 children. The single mother made history this spring when she gave birth to octuplets, conceived through in vitro fertilization. (She already had six children.) Fox just broadcast a two-hour special: "Octomom: The Incredible Unseen Footage."

McCall slammed CBS's "Kid Nation" as "ethically bankrupt." That's the show in which parents rented out their children for $5,000 each. The gimmick was children running their own town. The cameras feasted on scenes of kids pushing and harassing one another. Early in the six-week filming, the children shared one outdoor toilet.

It also took a sturdy stomach to watch the "Baby Borrowers" on NBC. Here teenagers were handed other couples' babies, and the cameras captured their efforts to deal with the responsibility. There were scenes of vomiting babies and cursing teenagers, the expletives bleeped out.

McCall finds reality shows using older teenagers also awful. "NYC Prep" follows pampered teens as they roam around Manhattan and say distasteful things. "These kids on 'NYC Prep' might think it's cool. 'I'm on TV,'" McCall said. "But they are creating a permanent history for themselves, and some of it, frankly, is not particularly flattering."

Who is at fault? The list of suspects is long: Parents who let their children be used, television production companies, stations that air the programs, the advertisers that bankroll the spectacle.

Meanwhile, the Gosselins' family life -- regardless of what that reality ever was -- is crumbling into a tabloid-fueled free-for-all. Gone is the gentle gossip about the twins' new pink bedroom and whether Jon helps Kate enough.

Kate is on the morning talk shows, saying, "Jon left me no choice." She is calling the police on Jon, and the "he-said, she-said" that follows is faithfully reported. Jon is now peddling his own reality-TV show. His 22-year-old girlfriend has given her own interview for "E! Online" and posted their pictures on Facebook.

"Jon & Kate Plus 8" should be ripped off the TV screens. And it never should have been on them, starting with that first innocent romp in the pumpkin patch. Children ought not be props for reality TV.

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