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Reality TV is in a big-family way

'Table for 12,' 'Jon & Kate Plus 8' -- there's a population spurt of programs on large clans.

March 30, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal
  • ?Table for 12? looks at Eric and Betty Hayes? family, which includes two sets of twins plus sextuplets.
?Table for 12? looks at Eric and Betty Hayes? family, which includes two… (Zave Smith / TLC )

Imagine a horde of children -- 10, actually -- at a local pizzeria. Tomato sauce on faces, clothes and the floor. There's yelping, burping, jumping, and trips to the potty. It's kiddie chaos.

Now imagine all these youngsters are yours. For Eric and Betty Hayes, they don't have to try very hard -- it's their life, chronicled in "Table for 12," part of TLC's growing stable of docu-series about big families. The show, which premiered last Monday to solid ratings, tracks the parenting adventures of the central New Jersey family, which consists of two sets of twins (12-year-old boys Kevin and Kyle and 10-year-old Kieran and Meghan) and 4-year-old sextuplets -- one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy.

"It's definitely a lot of work," said Eric Hayes by telephone on a recent weeknight, after the sextuplets were put to bed. "But the fact of the matter is, we don't know any different. We're a big family. And sometimes, people stare."

They are the latest brood to move in to the large-family neighborhood of reality television, a genre that has blossomed as quickly as the featured households. In addition to TLC, Discovery Health and WE showcase similar programs about prodigious families.

Of course, this programming niche was developed long before Nadya Suleman and the recent birth of her octuplets sparked nationwide fascination.

"The fate of these shows is kind of a ticklish issue, especially in light of the Octomom," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, an L.A.-based media watchdog group. "I think the networks -- primarily TLC -- that have highlighted these large families, have done well in the families they've selected, conscientious people just trying to be responsible parents despite the enormity of the task at hand."

But if comments on websites, message boards and blogs are any indication, some outsiders have indeed questioned the merits of spotlighting large families. Detractors accuse the families of exploiting their offspring for profit, while others question whether they have the financial resources to care for them.

"People are starting to question if portraying large families in a positive way is responsible," said Patricia A. Williamson, assistant professor at the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University. "They want answers to their questions: Are taxpayers helping pay for these children? Can they provide enough attention to each child?"

But producers behind the reality programs contend there's an enormous difference between their families and that of Suleman, who is single and unemployed.

The situation is "a horse of a very different color," said Bill Hayes, executive producer of TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and "18 Kids and Counting" and president of Figure 8 Films. "Sure, there's a natural confusion for viewers and the public in terms of lumping them all together, but I think as time moves forward, people will quickly sift that out and realize the differences."

Decades ago, the average American family was much bigger than today's and their TV counterparts reflected that lifestyle in show's like "Eight Is Enough" and "The Cosby Show." In 1976, 59% of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, according to census data.

But what was once the norm now has veered toward the bizarre. In 2006, roughly 28% of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children. Despite the drop in numbers, viewers still seem fascinated by huge families.

"For television, there's a strong entertainment value in shows about large families because there are great characters, adorable kids and a lot of chaos," said Eileen O' Neill, president of TLC. "There's a certain relatability; we all are part of some family structure and connect in some way to watching a super-sized version of it."

Plenty of programs have allowed viewers to connect with a bigger extended family:

* Discovery Health's "Then Came Six," about the Harris family -- parents Diamond and Chris Harris, big brother DeWayne and the only surviving set of African American sextuplets.

* Discovery Health's "The Bailey Multiples" in February about the Bailey family -- featuring the surviving babies of a difficult sextuplets pregnancy, as one set of identical twin sons died in weeks leading to delivery.

* Discovery Health's "Super Quads," about the Mathias family -- a set of identical quadruplets.

* TLC's "Little People, Big World" (also part of the Discovery Communications umbrella) about the Roloff family -- parents Matt and Amy (both of whom have a form of dwarfism) and their four children, including a set of fraternal twins (one of the twins also has dwarfism).

* TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," about the Gosselin family -- made up of a set of 8-year-old twins and 4-year-old sextuplets.

* TLC's "18 Kids and Counting" about the Duggar family -- a clan that continues to expand, so much so that a title change may soon be in order.

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