Rocio Calvillo was on summer break from her teaching job when, bored, she started channel surfing. She came upon a show that hooked her like a powerful drug. It wasn't a soap opera, but reality television showing people in excruciating pain, shedding all dignity and overcoming challenges that no man could endure. It was a show about women in labor.
Simple enough, as old as time, and yet for Calvillo, there was something entrancing about watching actual births, starring real-life couples.
She is not alone. The Learning Channel's "A Baby Story" is the top-rated show on daytime cable TV for women ages 18-34, with an average audience of 10.7 million a month and more than 4 million per week tuning in, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The show is the brainchild of Chuck Gingold, head of daytime programming for TLC parent Discovery networks. Gingold was also behind TLC's "A Wedding Story," which follows couples from planning through ceremony. In the fall of 1998, after seeing the success of "A Wedding Story," Gingold started thinking of other important passages in life.
"If weddings worked, why not babies?" he asked himself. At first it was a challenge to find volunteers. Producers Kristine Davis, Tara Sandler, Jennifer Davidson and Scott Templeton visited hospitals, Lamaze classes, birthing centers--even stopped pregnant women on the street--to find potential candidates for the show.
"We would see pregnant women in Jamba Juice and chase after them," Sandler said.
But today, after airing 188 episodes, the producers say they can't keep up with the supply. They receive up to 500 phone calls, e-mails and letters from prospective couples every month.
The show's success is due in part to the tremendous popularity of real shows about real people, as well as modern society's increasing comfort with airing personal problems, challenges and life experiences in front of hundreds of spectators, said Sandler.
The point of "A Baby Story" is to demonstrate the different kinds of birth experiences that people go through--all with a happy ending. So, the show features women giving birth in a range of ways, from water births with midwives to hospital births without epidurals to emergency C-sections. The show generally begins to follow the women a month or two before labor.
"Giving birth is a really scary thing for a lot of people, so 'A Baby Story' reinforces the fact that it's not so scary," Sandler said. "We take some of the mystery out of it. People like to share those emotions with one another."
Indeed, after watching several episodes religiously, Calvillo worked up the courage to volunteer herself and her husband. She was about three months' pregnant when she made the call and was confident that her baby's birth would be smooth.
"I thought it would be something the baby would appreciate when it got older," she said. "And I am pretty open about anything that has to do with me with my friends and people I work with."
Her husband, Michael, was not enthusiastic, but Calvillo prevailed. "I said, 'Wouldn't it be nice? It would be such a great thing for the baby!"' she recalled.
The Calvillos were selected to participate in the show, which can be seen weekdays at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. It was not until she was writhing in pain after enduring 49 hours of labor, and looked up to see a camera and boom mike in her face, that she asked herself what in the world she had been thinking.
"I was irritated," said the 32-year-old Huntington Park resident. "My hair was a mess. There is one part where I moan and I sound like a cow, and it is so embarrassing. I was like, 'I don't want people to look at me like this."'
But like all the women who commit to "A Baby Story," Calvillo swallowed her pride and let the show go on. Today, one year after the birth of her boy, Marc Anthony, she said she has no regrets. If anything, she hopes women will learn something from her experience.
Calvillo was adamant about having a natural childbirth. She had a terrific pregnancy, was in great shape and felt mentally prepared to endure the pain.
She was not counting on one factor--that the baby did not want to cooperate. One thing "A Baby Story" confirms is that, in giving birth, it is difficult to predict exactly how things will go.
After spending two days in labor, without an epidural, she tried pushing the baby for two hours. Finally, her doctor became concerned that the baby was in distress and told Calvillo a caesarean was necessary. It was a dramatic moment.
"I was devastated," she recalled. "I lost it, my husband started crying, my mom started crying. Because I went through the whole pushing thing, I was so sore I could not walk [after the birth]. Every muscle in my body hurt ....I would tell women to just be kinder to themselves."
Others, like Lori Augustine, opted for a home water birth. After 13 hours of labor, with relaxation techniques and a chiropractic husband to help her get through the pain, she delivered a healthy baby boy.
Augustine said she wanted to volunteer for the show so women could see alternative methods of birth.
"All we saw were hospital births, and some were caesareans," said Augustine, reflecting on what she had seen on "A Baby Story." "We said, 'Gosh, people need to know there are other options besides going to a hospital."'
The show also focuses on how important the father's role is in the birth process. Unlike a generation ago, fathers are increasingly active participants in childbirth.
"It's really great that we portray the men so involved in the whole process," producer Sandler said. "We live on the West Coast, and things are different out here. I think it's good for the rest of the country to see that too."
* \o7 "A Baby Story" can be seen weekdays at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the Learnin\f7 g\o7 Channel. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).