"The show must go on," Kate Gosselin of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" said on the episode where her split from her husband, Jon, was revealed. Usually, that line elicits admiration, as when an actor sprains his ankle but perseveres in the dance number anyway.
This time, maybe not so much. TLC's hugely popular reality show is going on hiatus, to return as something more like "Jon OR Kate Plus 8," with the parents alternating time with their telegenic brood. And amid the obvious interest, some fans are wondering whether the "8'' should even be on television anymore.
No matter that the divorce proceedings should make for deeply compelling reality TV — conflict being, of course, the raison d'etre of the genre. Think of the kids, these fans are saying.
"I absolutely do not think they should continue the show," said Karyn Speakman, a confirmed "Jon & Kate Plus 8" devotee. The 27-year-old mother from Yuba City, Calif., sits down each week with her husband, waiting to see the latest about the TV family she's admired for two years. Then she calls her sister and friend to dissect it.
But she's willing to give all that up. "No child should have to go through this in the public eye," said Speakman. "On the one hand, you could say that divorce is a big part of society, and maybe someone can learn from this. But I think we can learn enough from the people around us. I mean, look at the divorce rate."
But look, too, at the stunning ratings for the show — a sure sign it is not only coming back, but has the legs to last for years. Monday's episode, where the couple revealed their impending split, drew a whopping 10.6 million viewers — major broadcast network numbers — to TLC, a cable network. That's close to the 11.9 million viewership for HBO's famous "Sopranos" finale two years ago.
For another sense of the show's popularity, one need only look to the company that makes Crooked Houses, the playhouses featured this week. The owners in Maine have said their Web site received 170,000 hits within five minutes of being mentioned, and that their system crashed three times.
For now, "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is on a brief hiatus until Aug. 3 so the family can "regroup," the network has announced. When it comes back, according to Jon Gosselin, it will be in a modern arrangement whereby the kids stay put at the couple's sprawling Pennsylvania home and the parents come and go.
Logistics aside, the network would seem to be in an enviable but tricky situation. Producers surely don't want to be seen as exploiting or going against the interests of the angelic sextuplets, age 5, and the twins, age 8.
Yet conflict is the lifeblood of reality TV, or indeed fictional TV — why else would "Grey's Anatomy," for example, have had to invent all those frustrating roadblocks to happiness for Meredith and Derek?
"I would only assume that producers would be happy to have a dramatic show," said Diane Debrovner, health and psychology editor for Parents magazine, "and that they would be interested in filling the show with some conflict. I'd be concerned that these children might be 'used' a little more — that they'd be caught in the middle of a televised drama when they themselves are struggling to process what's happening to their family."
For any family going through divorce — on or off TV — "the most important thing that helps children is having their parents be adults, and shielding them from conflict," Debrovner said. "Yet it's clear from the history of the show that these parents have been torn by conflicting priorities — wanting to protect their kids, but also obviously interested in publicity and fame."
Producers will have to do their own balancing in the editing process, showing enough conflict to interest viewers but not enough to madden or alienate them. A spokeswoman for the show, Laurie Goldberg, declined to comment on the kids' situation, referring to a network statement that it "continues to support the Gosselin family and will work closely with them to determine the best way to continue to tell their story as they navigate through this difficult time."
The question of the children's well-being has come up before. Last month, Pennsylvania's Labor Department said it had opened an investigation into whether the show is complying with state child labor laws, after receiving a complaint. (The department automatically investigates each complaint.) TLC says it fully complies with state laws and regulations.
Also last month, Kate Gosselin's brother and sister-in-law went public with the charge that the couple was exploiting their children for financial gain. (Jon and Kate Gosselin are reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars per episode.)
And in another incident that Kate Gosselin could surely have done without, paparazzi snapped shots of her apparently spanking one of her daughters. "Caught Hitting Her Daughter," read the cover headline on In Touch Weekly. The mother responded that she would discipline her children as she saw fit.
Yet the couple has remained a source of fascination, affection and sometimes inspiration for many fans.
"I really looked up to them," said Speakman, the California fan. "They seemed to have a very faith-based marriage. That's something I admire. I think they're good people, but I think they've gone a little off track. It's really disheartening."
Speakman's husband, Rich, is a bit more skeptical. "He thinks they're doing this breakup for publicity and ratings," said Speakman. "And he thinks they'll get back together again to make the ratings go up."
But other viewers are more emotionally involved. For one, commenting on the show's own blog, the turmoil brought back painful childhood memories.
"I was as young as 6 when my parents divorced and it would've been so much worse if the aftermath of it all was at millions of people's hands," the fan wrote. "STOP doing the show it was great but now it's just another depressing statistic."
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