In the meantime, what might be called the Jon and Kate Effect has bled throughout the airwaves, echoing the rule of reality TV: If the show’s a success, copy it. TLC, also home to such highbrow fare as Half Ton Teen and The Man Whose Arms Exploded, is now promoting other big-family documentaries with titles like Twelve at the Table, Kids by the Dozen and 17 Kids and Counting. Later this year, WE is scheduled to debut The Joy of Six, with cameras trailing Bryan and Jenny Masche of Arizona and their two-year-old sextuplets. All of which has critics like Penn bioethicist Art Caplan concerned that frenetic publicity over higher-order multiples perpetuates the myth that such pregnancies can be had any day; that they’re lucrative, fun and easy, like a never-ending class trip. In fact, most end in heartache, cerebral palsy, and preemies too young to survive. “No one should get the impression that it’s anything other than a big gamble to try to deliver six babies at once,” Caplan says, “both for the mother and the babies.” The controversial birth in January of California octuplets set off a whole new media frenzy, raising troubling issues once the public learned the mother in question already had six other children under the age of eight, and was unmarried and unemployed. (None of which prevented her from quickly hiring a publicist.) L’Affaire Octuplets presented several PR opportunities for Kate, who dutifully appeared on Access Hollywood and CBS’s The Early Show to give California’s newly supersized family some advice, while in the background one of her sons whined, “I wanna go home now.” Kate’s words of wisdom in an AccessHollywood.com article were strangely self-revealing. She wished she had known beforehand, she said, “that although we are always surrounded by more people than we know what to do with, we often feel lonely and lack friends and family who truly know how we feel.” (Through TLC’s publicist, the Gosselins refused repeated requests from Philadelphia magazine for an interview for this story.)
If Jon and Kate Gosselin have sold their children’s privacy, we the viewers are the guilty buyers, even as we find it harder and harder to see the pair as the guileless, relatable-to, in-over-their-heads parents we once knew and adored. Looking ahead, the Gosselins’ challenges are still real and many, though different: How will they teach their kids to be humble, and that normal people don’t get to run the bases at Phillies games? That everything isn’t free and yours when you want it? That fame is, by and large, capricious and fleeting? Only time will tell how their eight will deal with having grown up in a home studio, in front of cameras and fans, as the world watched.
“As their friend, as somebody who loves the kids, I was always the one saying [to Jon and Kate], ‘Okay, be careful.’ Because they’re not just a commodity, they’re people,” says one of the kids’ former babysitters. “And someday will come and … you know? Nothing comes free. Everything, everything, has a price. And because I love them, I don’t want them to pay a price that’s too dear.”