’19 Kids & Counting’ Scandal Highlights Real Risks of Reality Television

With the Duggar family scandal still in flux at TLC, the topic of risk-taking reality television was much discussed at the RealScreen West entertainment conference this week in Santa Monica, Calif.

During his keynote discussion Monday, unscripted television creator Mark Burnett lent his opinion on “19 Kids and Counting,” which was rocked by the news that family and cast member Josh Duggar had molested children before the series debuted, according to a leaked 2006 police report. Duggar responded to the report, confessing that he acted “inexcusably.”

“I think [David] Zaslov did the right thing pulling that off,” Burnett said of the Discovery Communications prexy who oversees TLC. “Clearly, it’s an icky situation, to say the least.”

“A lesser company would have tried to profit off of it…failing to realize how many people have been hurt and emotionally scarred,” Burnett continued, giving a nod to the cabler for suspending repeat airings of the hit series, which still soared in its 10th season ratings this May. Though a final decision regarding the show’s future still remains to be made, Burnett said, “I think they should be applauded for taking it off.”

In addition to Burnett, Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, also delivered a keynote at RealScreen West on Tuesday, but he did not address the previous scandals (which occurred before he joined the network) revolving around A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” which the cabler kept on its schedule despite a brief casting suspension after patriarch Phil Robertson caused a media frenzy with anti-gay comments.

During the “Living on the Edge” panel, which showcased high-risk reality television with network exec and unscripted producer panelists, the topic of uncertainty with real-life subjects was highlighted.

“One of the risks you take when you’re following real people is it’s tough to tell what you’re getting into,” said panelist Tom Forman of Relativity Television, who was a producer on A&E’s short-lived prostitution docuseries “8 Minutes,” which the network pulled before the controversial project wrapped its initial run. Forman mentioned the importance of “finding those networks that are willing to take that leap with you,” adding that showcasing unscripted talent requires a willingness to take a series wherever it may go, no matter how unexpected.

On the panel, LMN exec Laura Fleury, who worked on the network’s special “Escaping Polygamy,” also spoke about producing content with out-of-the-ordinary cast members. “We always work very closely with our legal department,” she said. GRB Entertainment’s Michael Branton, who is behind “Intervention,” admitted that high-stakes series with larger-than-life personalities can take a toll on the creative team. “Everyone on the crew could have therapy because these shows are so intense,” he said.

Of course, “19 Kids and Counting” always intended to showcase the exact opposite type of cast: a wholesome, devout Christian family with strong values. Still, real-life talent can always pose an unexpected problem — and that’s the risk with reality TV.

“You can’t know every little thing, but you can make an effort,” Burnett said of unforeseen issues, which arise with unscripted programming. Mentioning outspoken personalities Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, both of whom Burnett has worked with on their respective series, he added, “We shouldn’t have any censorship, and I really stand for that…it’s a free country. It’s what we fought for.”

To wrap up his session, Burnett pitched his new faith-based show, which he’s exec producing with his wife and producing partner Roma Downey, who will also host the series, set to bow on TLC later this year. “Let’s face it, they need a new show this week.”

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