For more than 40 years, the American family held center stage in prime-time network television. From the Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver to the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, family life formed the backbone of the sitcom genre. And there was no shortage of family dramas either with such memorable series as Family, The Waltons and Eight is Enough.
With the arrival of the new millennium, however, families seemed to have all but disappeared from the network TV landscape. Typical of TV today, CBS' sophomoric sex romp Two and a Half Men is what has come to pass as a family sitcom.
But family fare is making a comeback in a big way on cable channel TLC (The Learning Channel) these days, particularly with young female viewers. And TV executives have taken note that the worse the economy gets, the more viewers are making these family-based, home-and-hearth series a regular part of their TV week.
Jon & Kate Plus 8, a reality TV show that follows the everyday lives of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, is one of the highest-rated series on cable TV with an audience of 3.7 million viewers. It is the top show on advertiser-supported cable with young women, one of TV's most desired demographic groups. It beats out such series as TNT's The Closer.
The Gosselins have been on the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine and were featured last week on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a barometer of mass popularity if ever there was one. Their success has driven year-to-year, double-digit growth for the once-foundering Maryland-based operation - lifting TLC this year into the Top 10 basic cable channels.
And then, there's 18 Kids and Counting, featuring Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, an Arkansas couple with 10 boys and eight girls - and all of their names begin with the letter "J." This supersized family is a little more country than the Gosselins, but it is also a hit by cable standards. Taken together, 18 Kids and Jon & Kate are spurring their own reality TV genre.
On March 23, after the season finale of Jon & Kate, TLC will launch Table for 12, another docu-series about a huge brood. Betty and Eric Hayes and their 10 children are the stars of this series, and based on the two episodes made available for preview, it absolutely follows the TLC formula.
Eileen O'Neill, the president and general manager of TLC who is responsible for developing the shows and engineering the channel's turnaround, explained the "recipe" for her success.
"The family itself has to be endearing or have some conflict - those are the two basic reality TV characteristics. The personalities just have to be there," O'Neill said. "Then, there has to be some kind of hook to the circumstances - in this case, it's the size of the family or the multiples."
In Jon & Kate, the family consists of twins and sextuplets. The Hayes family, of Table for 12, are twins, twins and sextuplets. The Duggars have three sets of twins.
There is undoubtedly a cultural fascination these days with such multiples, as the media's obsession with Nadya Suleman and her octuplets underscores. Last week, Suleman's appearance for two days on Dr. Phil lifted ratings for the syndicated show 15 percent - no small feat in daytime talk TV.
"Certainly the biological phenomenon of bearing that many children is interesting," O'Neill said, noting that TLC has created shows about "adoption-based" families that didn't "resonate" with viewers the way these shows do.
"So, there is the element of the biological phenomenon that plays a role. But secondly, there are the logistics of large families. It gives us something to appreciate as viewers when we're trying to put food on the table and be organized for one or two or three kids, and then to double or triple that. It just holds a fascination for us and makes us think maybe we don't have it so tough."
Finally, "at the end of the day, there is just no accounting for cute kids," O'Neill said.
There are other factors involved, such as religion and what amounts to a conservative ideology. An undercurrent of Christianity can be felt in each of the shows. With the Duggars, a family of Southern Baptists, it is front and center.
"They all have at their core a tremendous belief in God," O'Neill said. "And with the Duggar family in particular, that's what molds the whole family."
But as strong a pull as biology and religion might be, the ultimate attraction of the shows seems to be the way they speak to the uncertain economic times in which we live. As major institutions fail, and the government appears impotent to protect us from loss of jobs and homes, people fall back on family as the one unit they can trust. Think of The Waltons and the relationship of those characters to the Great Depression.
"I do think the economy has played a role in the success of these shows in the last six to nine months," O'Neill said.
"These shows have been building in popularity, I suspect, because of the cultural phenomenon we're all navigating right now with the economy. There's clearly a sense in these shows of the logistics of family management, including finances and food. And now there's a greater sensitivity within all our lives about the cost of these things. These supersized families take on those challenges every single day in major ways - and now, more than ever, that speaks to us."