The Duggars built a wholesome reality TV empire on TLC. Now it’s in ruins

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A booking photo of Josh Duggar

This photo provided by the Washington County (Ark.) Jail shows Joshua Duggar after being arrested in April by federal authorities on child pornography charges. Duggar was convicted last week. (Washington County (Arkansas) Jail via Associated Press)

When reality TV star Josh Duggar was convicted this month of receiving and possessing child pornography, it brought a shocking end to the Duggars’ decade-plus reign as the Fundamentalist Kardashians.

On their TLC shows “19 Kids and Counting” and “Counting On,” the ultra-conservative Arkansas clan known for its love of tater tot casserole and the letter J projected a mesmerizing aura of domestic tranquility.

Josh, the eldest of 19 children, was the golden boy, marrying at 20 and accepting an influential job with the Family Research Council’s lobbying arm in Washington, D.C.

Now he’s a convicted sex offender. Over the course of a six-day trial in Fayetteville, prosecutors presented compelling evidence that Duggar used the dark web to download material depicting the sexual abuse of children to a laptop at his car dealership — images a Homeland Security agent described as “in the top five of the worst of the worst that I’ve ever had to examine.” The 33-year-old father of seven faces up to 40 years in prison.

Duggar’s conviction has shaken a wholesome reality TV empire that’s grown larger than the family itself, provoking new scrutiny of TLC’s reliance on shows about large broods with young stars, as well as its role in whitewashing the Duggar family’s views on sex, gender roles and procreation in order to make them more palatable to a mainstream, predominantly female audience.

Anna and Josh Duggar pose Friday, April 10, 2009 in Springdale, Ark.

Anna and Josh Duggar pose Friday, April 10, 2009 in Springdale, Ark. (Associated Press/TLC/Jessa Duggar)

The case against Josh Duggar is just the latest in a series of scandals involving the alleged sexual abuse of children by people linked to TLC programs. Last year, former “Little People, Big World” star Jacob Roloff said he was molested by a producer on the series. The producer could not be reached comment.

In 2017, Toby Willis, who appeared with his wife and 12 musically gifted children (who, like the Duggars, were home-schooled and had names beginning with J) in “The Willis Family,” pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape.

TLC also canceled the controversial, highly rated “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in 2014 when it was reported that June Shannon, mother of series star Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, was dating a man convicted of child molestation. In 2011, Remigio “Remy” Gonzalez, who appeared in several episodes of “Cake Boss,” pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. And Andrea Clevenger, a mother who featured in the series “Cheer Perfection,” pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy in 2014.

This is not the Duggars’ first brush with scandal, either. InTouch magazine reported that a decade earlier Josh had been investigated by local police for allegedly molesting five younger girls, including four of his sisters, in 2002-03.

According to a 2006 report by the Springdale, Ark., police, the Duggars enrolled their son in a Christian treatment program in 2003, about a year after Josh, then a teenager, first told them he had been inappropriately touching his sisters. In the same report, the parents said they sent Josh for a “stern talk” with a family friend who worked in law enforcement but that they did not report the alleged abuse. (The friend later went to jail himself on unrelated child pornography charges.)

A woman with blond hair interviews a man and a woman in a kitchen

Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News, interviews Jim Bob Duggar and Michelle Duggar of the TLC program “19 Kids and Counting” at their home in Tontitown, Ark. The interview followed the publication of a 2006 police report detailing molestation allegations against their eldest son, Josh. (Handout/Getty Images)

The report also indicated that producers at “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” who had booked the family on the program, received an email from an anonymous source warning them about Josh’s alleged behavior and forwarded it to Arkansas authorities, who opened an investigation. This led many to question whether Jim Bob and Michelle had handled the incident appropriately — and what, if anything, TLC knew about the allegations when they put the Duggars on TV. No charges were filed against Josh Duggar.

After months of public pressure, TLC canceled “19 Kids and Counting” in July 2015 but chose to stay in the Duggar business with “Counting On,” a Josh-free spinoff that debuted later that year. The series, which aired for 11 more seasons and nearly 100 episodes, focused on Josh’s sisters — including at least two of his alleged victims — as they married young and spawned a whole new generation of reality stars.

TLC declined to comment for this story, but after his arrest in April, the network issued a statement: “TLC is saddened to learn about the continued troubles involving Josh Duggar. ’19 Kids and Counting’ has not aired since 2015. TLC canceled the show on the heels of prior allegations against Josh Duggar and he has not appeared on air since then.”

But the problems with the Duggars — and TLC more broadly — didn’t begin or end with Josh.

The network had originated in the 1970s as a project to bring educational programming to Appalachia using a NASA satellite, then relocated to cable and gradually shifted into unscripted lifestyle shows.

The Discovery-owned channel became a reality TV juggernaut in the mid-2000s thanks to a spate of reality shows about large, unconventional and typically religious families living in small-town America. These included “17 Kids and Counting” — the title changed as the Duggars had more kids — and “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which followed Jon and Kate Gosselin, a Pennsylvania couple with sextuplets and twins whose marital discord became a national obsession.

A woman sits in a hospital bed holding a newborn and is surrounded by 16 children.

Michelle Duggar poses on Aug. 2, 2007, with her husband, Jim Bob, second from left, and children, including their oldest son Josh, tallest standing, after the birth of her 17th child in Rogers, Ark. (Beth Hall / Associated Press)

The Duggars, who appeared in several documentary specials before landing their own series in 2008, were an ideal fit for TLC’s emerging brand identity as the red-state Bravo. The women wore ankle-length denim skirts and waist-length perms. The boys sported neatly trimmed crew cuts and matching polo shorts. Even for some liberals, it was impossible to resist the spectacle of child-rearing on such an epic scale — or to deny the Duggar kids were cute and well-behaved.

Produced by the North Carolina-based Figure 8 Films, “19 Kids and Counting” became a big hit, with ratings cresting as the older girls began to marry off. A record 4.4 million viewers watched Jill Duggar tie the knot with Derick Dillard in 2014, the network’s biggest audience since the debut of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” four years earlier. This success made the Duggars wealthy — they reportedly made $25,000 to $40,000 an episode, with millions more in income from speaking fees, book sales, DVDs and brand sponsorships — and helped boost profits for TLC, bringing the network an estimated $25 million in ad revenue in 2015, according to research firm iSpot.tv.

It also turned the Duggars into mainstream celebrities who announced pregnancies on “Today,” regularly graced the covers of tabloid magazines and even flew private planes.

But there were longstanding questions about the way “19 Kids and Counting” and other unscripted programs featuring underage stars were able to skirt child labor laws because they were classified as documentaries. A 2010 investigation by The Times revealed that producers of “19 Kids and Counting” and other reality TV programs had not obtained work permits to employ minors under 16. Patriarch Jim Bob Duggar said at the time the family didn’t consider the filming to be work. (A representative for Figure 8, which made “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and several other TLC shows, declined a request to speak for this story.)

And the questions go beyond labor law. As children, the Duggars’ offspring were conscripted into a reality show that stripped them of their privacy and anonymity, all in service of their parents’ extreme religious beliefs. “Our desire in opening our home to the world is to share Bible principles that are the answers for life’s problems,” Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have said.

The inexpensive reality TV subgenre popularized by the Duggars is a staple on the network to this day: The most visible of these current series is “Sister Wives,” about a polygamist with four (soon to be three) wives and 18 kids. But there are others, such as “Outdaughtered,” which follows a Texas couple with six daughters, including a set of quintuplets; and “Welcome to Plathville,” about a Duggar-esque conservative Christian family in rural Georgia with nine flaxen-haired, home-schooled children.

The allegations that have plagued the Duggars and other TLC personalities will likely continue to attract attention as parent company Discovery, boosted by the popularity and profitability of its unscripted programming, pursues a proposed $43 billion merger with WarnerMedia.

In 2020, TLC had its most-watched primetime year ever and remains a top-rated cable network with young female viewers.

A woman in a gray dress stands with several young children on a stage.

“Jon + Kate Plus 8” star Kate Gosselin and some of her children with president and CEO of TLC, Angela Shapiro, speaking at the Discovery Upfront event April 23, 2008, in New York City. (Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

From the start, there were indications of the Duggars’ strict religious views, particularly in the early seasons’ focus on their stringent rules for romance: chaperoned courtship with mates pre-approved by their parents; no kissing before marriage. But beliefs that might be politically sensitive or controversial were largely glossed over as the series grew in popularity.

The Duggars are associated with the Biblical patriarchy movement, which holds that men are ordained by God to be the leaders of their households and strongly discourages birth control.

In their bestselling books, the Duggars endorsed the teachings of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a religious ministry, and its homeschooling division, the Advanced Training Institute. The group’s founder, Bill Gothard, promoted extreme sexual modesty, including the idea that God sometimes “let” sexual abuse happen to victims because of “immodest dress,” but resigned in 2014 after more than 30 women accused him of sexual assault and harassment.

“19 Kids and Counting” also regularly documented the Duggars at events organized by the group in ways that omitted key information: For instance, episodes featuring commencement ceremonies from Alert Academy, an IBLP-led quasi-boot camp, never mention that the program denounces homosexuality and endorses the use of “loving corporal correction” on children.

Producers of the show rarely pressed the Duggars on their views or delved into their off-camera activism, which included recording a robocall against a local LGBTQ rights ordinance.

The purity culture embraced by the Duggars “teaches girls and women that they are responsible not only for their own sexual thoughts, feelings and choices, but for the sexual thoughts, feelings and choices of others, particularly those of men,” says Linda Kay Klein, author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.”

This meant the older Duggar daughters were taught to use a code word, “Nike,” to warn their brothers and father to look at their feet if a provocatively dressed woman was approaching — a detail shared in their book, “Growing Up Duggar.”

It also meant that when the molestation allegations against Josh Duggar became public in 2015, his sisters and alleged victims Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald were put on TV to defend him.

A man in a suit interviews a young couple in a New York City studio.

AJ Calloway interviews Jill Duggar Dillard and husband Derick Dillard during their visit to “Extra” at its New York studios on Oct. 23, 2014. Jill’s wedding was featured in “19 Kids and Counting” and set a ratings record for TLC. (D Dipasupil / Getty Images for Extra)

“People who are calling him a child molester or pedophile or rapist — I’m like, that is so overboard,” Seewald told Megyn Kelly on Fox News. Josh was merely “a young boy in puberty and a little too curious about girls,” she said. “The extent of [the abuse] was mild — inappropriate touching on fully clothed victims, most of it while [the] girls were sleeping.”

Michelle Duggar also pushed troubling ideas about consent, repeatedly counseling other women to never say no to sex with their husbands, even if they were tired or hugely pregnant. “Anyone can fix him lunch, but only one person can meet that physical need of love that he has, and you always need to be available when he calls,” she said in an interview with Today.com.

Baked into the title of the show — “and counting” — was the assumption that Jim Bob and Michelle would continue having children in perpetuity, turning procreation into a bizarre endurance contest rather than a choice with potentially severe health risks.

In 2009, 43-year-old Michelle Duggar came down with preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition, and gave birth to her 19th child via emergency C-section three months early. After another miscarriage two years later, Michelle remained determined to reach the magic number 20 and consulted with a fertility doctor.

“19 Kids” and “Counting On” made it seem like “it’s quirky and zany to run a household with that many children,” says Kathryn Joyce, author of “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement,” when in reality older girls are often forced to serve as co-parents to the detriment of things like their education.

Once the Duggar girls reached adulthood, there were few options available to them other than marriage, kids and reality TV. Josh was nowhere to be seen in “Counting On,” but the series still focused on young women who’d already spent much of their childhoods taking care of younger siblings or being trailed by a camera crew.

Yet it also spent little time addressing the consequences of having one’s first kiss, or childbirth, aired on TV — or, outside of an early episode, the abuse they allegedly experienced at Josh’s hands.

Ultimately not all the Duggar daughters were happy to carry on the family business. Jill Dillard, one of Josh’s alleged victims, and her husband quietly left the show in 2017 because, as she later told People, they were unable to control their major life decisions and were not compensated for appearing in “19 Kids and Counting” or “Counting On” until they took legal action.

The trial and its aftermath appear to have exposed further rifts beneath the family’s once-harmonious facade. In an evidentiary hearing, Jim Bob testified that he couldn’t recall the specifics of the behavior Josh had confessed to him as a teenager — a claim the presiding judge called a “selective lapse in memory” that was “not credible.” In contrast, several of Josh’s siblings issued statements forcefully denouncing their brother after the guilty verdict. Last week, Jim Bob badly lost a primary race for the Arkansas state senate in which he ran as a “pro-family” Republican.

When TLC finally canceled “Counting On” this summer, months after the child pornography charges against Josh Duggar, the network said it was “important to give the Duggar family the opportunity to address their situation privately.”

It may be about 15 years — and a dozen or so kids — too late for that.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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