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Guilty Pleasure Or Not, It's Time To Change The Channel On The Duggars

In this photo, the Duggar family, stars of the hit reality TV show "19 Kids and Counting," is pictured after the birth of their 17th child, 2007. Last week, the Duggar's eldest son Josh confirmed reports that, as a teenager, he molested several underage girls, including his sisters. (Beth Hall/AP)
In this photo, the Duggar family, stars of the hit reality TV show "19 Kids and Counting," is pictured after the birth of their 17th child, 2007. Last week, the Duggar's eldest son Josh confirmed reports that, as a teenager, he molested several underage girls, including his sisters. (Beth Hall/AP)
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Nearly a decade ago, an Arkansas couple named Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar recorded a segment for "The Oprah Winfrey Show." What made Jim Bob and Michelle compelling was that they had 16 children. They were devout Baptists and members of the Christian Patriarchy movement, which advocates extreme chastity and modesty, lest their menfolk be tempted into lustful thought.

Also worth noting: Their oldest son Josh is an admitted child molester, accused of abusing multiple young girls when he was a teenager — some reportedly his sisters.

Of course, the Duggars knew all about their son’s deeds, though they didn’t tell Oprah about them. The only reason she found out was because her staff received an anonymous tip regarding Josh’s abuse, which launched a police investigation.

It is certainly fair to ask how we got to this particular point of shamelessness and the short answer is: money.

And none of this stopped the folks at TLC from recruiting the Duggars to star in a TV show about their brood, which debuted two years after the police investigation and made the Duggars and their many children reality TV royalty.

It is certainly fair to ask how we got to this particular point of shamelessness and the short answer is: money.

The long answer requires a quick history lesson about the network now known as TLC.

Way back in 1972, The Learning Channel was a publicly funded network launched by NASA and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, to provide instructional videos. Eight years later, it was privatized, and mostly devoted to documentaries.

Over the past two decades, as reality TV has become cable’s cheapest and most reliable cash cow, TLC has dropped the educational pretense altogether. The channel once devoted to teaching adult literacy is now unabashedly devoted to for-profit dysfunction, a kind of digital freak show where viewers can gawk at midgets and fat people and assorted desperate lunatics, all happily mugging away in their cathode cages.

Here’s where you and I come in, of course.

It’s all fine and well to mock these shows, and to write them off as guilty pleasures. That’s the basic posture most of us adopt — a kind of condescending devotion. We look at the folks who populate shows such as "Extreme Hoarders: Buried Alive" and "My 600 Lb Life" and think: what pathetic losers!

In this Aug. 29, 2014, file photo, Josh Duggar, then-executive director of FRC Action, the non-profit lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, speaks in favor the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. In the wake of that he molested girls when he was 14, Duggar has resigned as head of the Christian lobbying group. (Danny Johnston/AP)
In this Aug. 29, 2014, file photo, Josh Duggar, then-executive director of FRC Action, the non-profit lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, speaks in favor the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. In the wake of that he molested girls when he was 14, Duggar has resigned as head of the Christian lobbying group. (Danny Johnston/AP)

But it’s our addiction to these “losers” (our own largely unexamined need to revel in the pathologies of others) that has propelled TLC to the top of the reality racket. We’re the reason TLC now routinely beats the ratings of less extreme reality heavyweights, such as Bravo and Lifetime.

And TLC knows quite well that nothing sells in reality land better than infamy. Although the network initially pulled reruns of "19 Kids and Counting," executives have yet to formally announce plans to cancel the show. As of this writing, it was still prominently featured on their website.

What’s more, Josh Duggar himself has received unabashed support from former Arkansas Gov. and current presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, who took to Facebook to note that “good people make mistakes” and to slam those seeking to sensationalize the story.

The idea that a devout Christian who opposes same-sex marriage would defend a young man who sexually molested his young sisters for years might seem odd at first.

But Josh Duggar wasn’t just a reality TV star. He used his stardom as a platform to become a rising voice on the Christian right, scoring a top-level job as a lobbyist with the conservative Family Research Council — a post he has since resigned.

it’s our addiction to these 'losers' (our own largely unexamined need to revel in the pathologies of others) that has propelled TLC to the top of the reality racket.

This is why virtually all of the leading Republican candidates for president have posed for photos with Duggar. They are desperate to win the trust of fundamentalist Christians, who hold a disproportionate influence in the upcoming GOP presidential primaries.

Of course, if the family under consideration were a gay atheist couple whose oldest child had molested his younger siblings, you can imagine the fire and brimstone that Huckabee and his fellow candidates would summon.

It’s all quite a cynical arrangement. But it’s one we the viewers sponsor.

If you’re genuinely disgusted by the news of Josh Duggar's deeds, and of TLC’s — along with the inevitable monetizing of this scandal — your course of action is pretty simple: stop watching the show and the network.

Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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