Unscripted skein delivers for cabler despite claims it stretches truth

Despite controversy over the show’s veracity, TLC continues to bank on hit skein “Breaking Amish,” setting a two-part reunion spesh for Nov. 11 and Nov. 18.

Specials arrive as TLC airs extended cuts of the series weekdays along with Sunday night telecasts of new episodes. “Breaking Amish” has proven to be one of TLC’s strongest-performing shows, ranking among cable’s top Sunday programs, particularly with women.

“Breaking Amish’s” impressive run has come even as allegations abound questioning the show’s marketed premise: that it depicts the experiences of a group of young men and women who have left their homes in Amish/Mennonite communities for the first time. Numerous photographs of “Breaking Amish” cast members in contempo clothes and non-Amish settings surfaced on Facebook, and friends and associates of the five cast members came forward disputing their claims of having just left their rural roots (Daily Variety, Sept. 21).

TLC responded to the accusations with a statement assuring viewers that many of the allegations would be explained during the show’s run. As the series progressed, cast members discussed their history of leaving the Amish community and revealed that they’d known each other before production.

Reunion specials, to be hosted by NBC’s Michelle Beadle, intend to tackle remaining questions surrounding the authenticity of the cast’s background and production of the show.

In an era where skepticism and reality TV go hand-in-hand, scandal about an unscripted skein being staged or manipulated does not drive viewers away as many once expected. Rather, the controversy seems to attract them.

“It’s not even that viewers are suspending their disbelief with reality television. It’s that they are perfectly content with their disbelief,” Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse U.’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, told Variety. “If one looks at the ratings, this not only didn’t hurt the program, it helped the program. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this controversy was managed — it was like a promo for upcoming episodes.”

After an expected ratings dropoff from its preem numbers, “Breaking Amish” hovered around 2.8 million viewers during its second and third weeks — weeks when allegations were beginning to surface questioning the legitimacy of the cast. As word about the scandal spread, ratings spiked back up to 3 million and improved upon that number during its Oct. 14 broadcast.

During its 10 p.m. broadcast last Sunday, program pulled in 3.4 million viewers, its highest overall viewership to date.

TLC’s addition of reunion speshes spanning over two weeks draws out the already-successful show. While “Breaking Amish” episodes did provide some explanation for the photos that surfaced of the cast online, the marketing of the program positioned the reality series in a less-than-truthful light, emphasizing the naivete of the Amish and Mennonite cast to city life and modern amenities. On the website of “Amish” production company Hot Snakes Media, promo material describing the show’s castmembers as venturing outside of their communities for the first time has been considerably truncated.

Viewers have been savvy for years to the manipulation that occurs on the sets of reality shows and in post production rooms. VH1 aired “Reality TV Secrets Revealed,” an hourlong doc in 2004 detailing production secrets from series like “The Restaurant” and “Joe Millionaire.” Reality stars from skeins like “The Bachelorette” and “Teen Mom” have also become tabloid fodder as viewers show an appetite for behind-the-scenes glimpses when cams aren’t rolling.

In the industry, phrases like “structured reality” are openly used by producers who acknowledge a level of manipulation behind their shows. While many viewers still call foul at this brand of reality TV, auds still flock to the skeins by the millions.

“If the show is compelling, viewers don’t consider ‘absolute reality’ to be one of the criteria they’re looking for if they decide to continue watching,” Thompson said. “I don’t think it reveals we’re a nation that is stupid or apathetic. We aren’t watching these shows for important civic info — we’re watching them to be entertained. If you want to alienate viewers, you make the show boring.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more