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TLC has canceled the Duggars again, but that doesn’t mean people can count them out for good

The Duggar family on “Good Morning America” in 2014. (Ida Mae Astute/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
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Even if you never watched a minute of the Duggar reality shows during their 13 years on cable television, a few facts probably seeped into your subconscious.

You probably know that the family has a lot of kids (19, to be exact) whose names all start with the letter “J,” or that they’re devout Christians from Arkansas. Maybe you’ve read about the older kids embarking on “courting” with chaperones (instead of dating) and how they aren’t allowed to kiss before marriage. Or you’ve seen a magazine cover that boasts the birth of yet another Duggar grandchild.

And there’s a good chance you remember the inescapable coverage in 2015 when the tabloid In Touch Weekly uncovered police reports that confirmed the eldest son, Josh Duggar, was accused of molesting multiple girls when he was a teenager. His parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, later said he had inappropriately touched four of his younger sisters and a babysitter; and after a “very stern talk” from a police officer and a trip to counseling, he was not charged. TLC pulled the plug on the family’s highly rated show, “19 Kids and Counting” — which ran 10 seasons — when advertisers fled. Yet several months later, the network greenlit a spinoff called “Counting On,” which aired without Josh but occasionally featured his wife and kids.

So it might have felt like history repeating itself in late June when TLC canceled “Counting On” after 11 seasons (yes, 11 — in reality TV world, a show will sometimes air more than one season per year). The decision came shortly after Josh was arrested in April for allegedly receiving and possessing child pornography. He pleaded not guilty and attorneys have vowed to defend his case “aggressively and thoroughly.” “TLC feels it is important to give the Duggar family the opportunity to address their situation privately,” the network said in a statement. (TLC was unavailable for further comment for this story.)

How did we get back here again?

In some ways, it’s surprising the Duggars lasted, essentially unscathed, through so many controversies. Two months after the news broke about Josh in 2015, Gawker reported he had an account on the infidelity site Ashley Madison; Josh released a statement saying he had been unfaithful to his wife and was “the biggest hypocrite ever.” A swiftly deleted sentence said he had also developed an Internet porn addiction.

The year prior, nearly 200,000 people signed a petition for TLC to cancel the show when Michelle helped lobby against an Arkansas anti-discrimination bill and Josh joined the Washington-based Family Research Council, known for its anti-LGBT and antiabortion stances. In 2017, TLC distanced itself from Jill Duggar’s husband, Derick Dillard, and barred him from “Counting On” after he tweeted that “‘transgender’ is a myth” and criticized transgender TLC star Jazz Jennings.

At the same time, the unstoppable phenomenon of the Duggars speaks to the ubiquity of long-running reality shows that have garnered such a huge fan base that no amount of scandal and criticism can deflate their success. Josh’s arrest made plenty of headlines, but the rest of the family still provides the enduring fodder for gossip sites and magazines — from the birth of Jessa Duggar’s fourth baby (and, um, counting) to Jinger Duggar’s mildly dramatic relationship with her husband.

So, back to business as usual. If you’re tempted to re-watch “19 Kids and Counting,” you’re out of luck: After Josh’s first downfall, the show was pulled from TV and streaming sites. “Counting On” is still available on Discovery Plus — and the family as a whole shows no sign of slowing down.

“There’s always a level of notoriety with any reality TV families, and the Duggars have certainly lived up to that reputation,” said Tom Nunan, a former network executive who was president of UPN and is a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

He speculated that in some cases, these shows succeed only if there’s controversy — and therefore lots of attention — attached. “The first controversy with the Duggars was the epic nature of how many kids there were. But then, of course, it got into the darker side of family life. … Every family has secrets, and they turned out to be no different than any others.”

Although it’s hard to believe, the most obvious parallel for the Duggars’ fame (and infamy) may be the Kardashians. First, the sheer number of relatives means that if someone is in the news for negative reasons, there are plenty of other family members who can distract the attention back to the brand. And fans watch the shows for the same reasons: While they live wildly different lives than most viewers, the family aspect puts the show in a relatable context.

“I don’t do side-hugs with my siblings, but I relate to having conflict with siblings,” said Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist whose book “True Story: What Reality TV Says about Us” will be released this fall. “There’s a balance between the exotic and familiar that the Duggars strike that really draws us in, and to reality TV more broadly.”

Producers leaned on the relatability with the Duggars since the beginning, when the franchise started as a special on Discovery Health in 2004 called “14 Kids And Pregnant Again!” The Duggars were already in the public eye (Jim Bob served in the Arkansas state legislature from 1999 through 2002, when he lost a primary bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate) and viewers were intrigued. “17 Kids and Counting” debuted on TLC in 2008, and the title kept changing. The show went on to be a huge hit, bringing in million of viewers and a reported $25 million in advertising as of 2015, which may help explain why it quickly landed a spinoff despite Josh.

In early episodes, the Duggars introduced themselves as “not the typical family” and noted “we have very conservative values.” They explained it was up to God how many children they would have, and the show explored the courting process, such as not being allowed to hold hands until you’re engaged — but glossed over the extreme aspects of the Duggars’ belief system.

For example, the family occasionally referenced that they followed the home-school teachings of the Christian organization Advanced Training Institute (which former students have described over the years as a “cult” and exploitative) without going into details about its patriarchal views. In 2014, ATI founder Bill Gothard stepped down after allegations of sexual harassment and not reporting child abuse cases.

“I think as the kids grow up and begin to critique and process their own upbringing, and as Josh gets ready to stand trial, it’s not going to be ‘This is an example of everything’s fine, this is a hunky-dory family making it work!’ which I think is what TLC wanted to show,” said Kate Shellnutt, a senior news editor at Christianity Today who has covered the Duggars for years. She recalls episodes focused on questions such as, “How will they possibly do all this laundry?!” and many lighter topics. “They didn’t touch the deeper issues of their theology.”

In 2015, Jim Bob and Michelle did a prime-time interview with Megyn Kelly and said they had long moved on and forgiven Josh; his sisters also came to his defense and said the news coverage was “re-traumatizing” them, while TLC aired a special on child sexual abuse. “Counting On” debuted a few months later. But the reaction to the new allegations against Josh will probably be different this time around, Shellnutt said, with fewer defenders to instantly call for understanding and forgiveness.

“The landscape around abuse has changed so much,” she said, pointing to the #MeToo movement and sexual abuse within different church denominations. Now, people may be more openly asking: Were there factors in Josh’s church or household that contributed to what happened, or even the way his family responded in wanting to sweep it all under the rug and move on? “There are questions being asked about the Duggars now that weren’t being asked in 2015.”

There was always tension between how TV portrayed the Duggars and what other Christians and evangelicals thought about them. Roslyn Satchel, a fellow at Harvard Law School and a communications professor at Pepperdine University, said she often hears people in Christian circles saying the Duggars “are not us. That is something else.”

“It’s important for us to have a very clear sense that this is not conservative Christianity — this is a reflection of a movement that is trying to hold onto some outdated patriarchal concepts that most Christian traditions did away with in the early 20th century,” she said.

Satchel, who specializes in intersectionality of the media, religion and the law, emphasized that television and its stars can influence people’s perceptions and behavior more than they realize. She’s still taken aback by some of the “very dangerous” messaging the Duggars promoted, such as their statements that Michelle’s use of birth control caused a miscarriage.

“What we see is shows that have been able to garner ad-driven profits, in a way that would lead some to believe it’s a success,” she said. “But many of us insist it’s an incredible moral and ethical failure in the media industry on the part of TLC and producers of this show.”

Despite the scandals and misconduct, there are two main reasons the Duggars remain popular.

“Like any reality show, a lot of people are watching for the train wreck: ‘Holy crap, are there really 19 kids? That’s a lot of kids!’” said Greg Garrett, an English professor, theologian and cultural critic at Baylor University.

He theorized the Duggars shows also speak to something bigger. “It feels like they’re really at the heart of a whole bunch of cultural and political issues that people watching the show aren’t necessarily paying attention to,” Garrett said. From a cultural standpoint, he said, White Christian men might find something “comforting” about turning on the TV and “literally turning back in time 50 years, or 100 years, to a time when men were the rulers of the house and women’s primary role was to raise their kids.”

Garrett imagined the latest developments will lead to a lot of difficult questions for “Counting On” fans who resist connecting the family-values message with the allegations against Josh.

Lindemann, the reality TV author, agreed that the show “fed into a long-standing American narrative that religion — and especially Christianity — is aligned with wholesomeness and virtue … with rigid gender roles and ideas about sexuality,” she said. “In other words, there’s a big kernel of conservatism there that’s appetizing to a lot of Americans, even if they don’t share or implement those ideas to such an extreme in their own lives.”

Even with a persistent fan base — multiple Duggar daughters have popular YouTube channels and millions of Instagram followers — it was clear that in the year 2021, TLC has had its fill. However, a viable social media and Internet presence can still keep them famous and may lead to other ways to expand the brand, as well as the family. With all those followers, it’s doubtful the Duggars will disappear.

“Typically, these things come down to the executive suites at networks, and down to the advertising and sales departments, the ones who step forward to the programmers and say, “We can’t sell this anymore. We’re not attracting the kind of brands we need to support this show, and it’s becoming a liability for us,’” said Nunan, the TV executive. “When it reaches a tipping point, it usually comes from ad sales, that it just doesn’t make sense as a business anymore.”

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