The Duggars and TLC's exploitative reality TV cash cow: How much lower can one network sink?

Advertisers are fleeing "19 Kids and Counting," but will TLC learn anything from this scandal?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 27, 2015 3:25PM (EDT)

Michelle Duggar, kneeling, and Jim Bob Duggar, back right, and many of the Duggar's 19 children, in Raleigh, N.C., March 14, 2014.                   (AP/Ted Richardson)
Michelle Duggar, kneeling, and Jim Bob Duggar, back right, and many of the Duggar's 19 children, in Raleigh, N.C., March 14, 2014. (AP/Ted Richardson)

These must be interesting days around the TLC offices.  This week, In Touch Weekly revealed the police reports of sexual abuse accusations against eldest Duggar son Josh involving five underage females, including family members. Duggar subsequently announced he'd "acted inexcusably" as a teen and resigned from his position at the Family Research Council. The bombshell comes mere months after TLC, which has made a tidy franchise of the Duggars since 2008, had to roll up "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" after four seasons when reports surfaced that "Mama June" Shannon was dating a convicted sex offender who had abused her own daughter. Though the fate of "19 Kids and Counting" is still up in the air, advertisers are currently fleeing the Duggar reality show like it's a cable TV case of head lice, with Choice Hotels, General Mills, Walgreens and Payless ShoeSource distancing themselves from the once golden show. So could this be a moment for the network to rethink its entire brand, to maybe recall the time it was once unironically called The Learning Channel? Don't hold your breath.

This, after all, is the network that was still airing a Duggars marathon Thursday, as the Josh Duggar revelations were coming to light. It has now yanked "19 Kids and Counting" from its current schedule, replacing it with "Little People, Big World" — not to be confused with its other similar reality shows "Little Couple" or "Our Little Family" or "7 Little Johnstons." In a statement, the network says only, "We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and victims at this difficult time." And while the continuation of the Duggar's reality show seems highly unlikely, as of Wednesday, the network is still prominently promoting "19 Kids and Counting" on its Web site — along with other fare like "The Willis Family," about "a musically gifted family of fourteen," "My 600-lb Life," "OMG! EMT!," "Sex Sent Me to the ER," "Trailer Park: Welcome to Myrtle Manor," "Hoarding: Buried Alive," "My Strange Addiction" and "My Five Wives," a series about "progressive polygamists"that promises "a fresh, honest look at a controversial lifestyle" and should not be confused with TLC's "Sister Wives," which only features four wives.

TLC has for several years now made clear its commitment to going all in on individuals and behaviors that can answer to the description "extreme," as in extreme poodles. And it's made it blatantly clear that it gives no damns about whether you watch or hate watch, whether you care about who gets hurt along the way. The network isn't the only one with a pile of human suffering in its roster, of course. "Bachelor" contestant Gia Allemand's suicide two years ago didn't make a dent in the franchise — and the competition genre itself is littered with a long line of dangerously not well-checked out characters and other suicide victims. But TLC has a particular consistency to its dysfunction that makes it outstanding, even in the wasteland of Lifetime's "Born in the Wild" and everything on MTV. Don't expect that to change. As the Hollywood Reporter notes Wednesday, "19 Kids…" "can still pull as many as 3.3 million to a telecast. And it's one of the contributing factors to the network's ongoing success," with ratings "currently stronger than 'Honey Boo Boo' at its peak."

So there you have it. Sure, on the one hand, you're talking about a network whose two top television shows have been mired in scandals involving the sexual abuse of children, which one might consider high on the list of worst things in the world. On the other hand, ratings, right? As long as viewers tune in, what are the odds TLC will reconsider the kinds of shows it airs and the kinds of families it turns into stars? What are the chances advertisers will suddenly refuse to participate in exploitation involving kids? Where's the motivation to be anything less than awful?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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19 Kids And Counting Here Comes Honey Boo Boo Josh Duggar Reality Television Tlc