More than 19 days and counting. That's how long it's been (at press time) since TLC has publicly commented on the child molestation controversy that has enveloped the network and the Duggar family, the stars of its signature reality show, 19 Kids and Counting. On May 22, one day after parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar confirmed reports that their oldest son Josh had molested several underage girls in 2002 and 2003—they later revealed the victims were four of his sisters and a family babysitter—the network announced it had pulled 19 Kids from the air, adding, "We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation."
Since then, the network has also been tongue-tied, remaining silent as more than a dozen advertisers, including General Mills and Walgreens, announced they would no longer run spots on the series if it returns, and Jim Bob and Michelle sat for what the Daily Beast called a "disastrous" interview with Fox News' Megyn Kelly (who also spoke with two of the sisters whom Josh had molested).
TLC's no-comment strategy has been perplexing and frustrating to many—"that's a really long time to be quiet," said crisis manager Judy Smith, the inspiration for Kerry Washington's character on Scandal—but a source close to TLC said there is a method to the network's (apparent) madness. "It's not hurting them to stay quiet, even though people think it is," said the source, explaining that TLC was ignoring outside pressure to make a snap decision regarding the show's, and its stars', long-term fate. "You don't just throw them to the wolves because the wolves demand you to do that. They're taking a breath and being respectful of people that they've worked with for a long time." The Duggars have been a TLC staple since 2008; last October's wedding episode of 19 Kids drew the network's highest ratings in four years.
It's not just TLC that has decided that silence is golden when it comes to the controversy. Several media buyers also declined to comment on the record, though one noted that no clients had yet asked to pull advertising from any current TLC shows.
Even those who question TLC's silent treatment admit that the network is likely to emerge unscathed. "I don't think it will have a long-term effect on the brand," said Smith. Added Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media: "There's always a constant flow of these types of incidents. There will be something else in the next six months or year that will get attention." So far, audiences are staying put. Since TLC pulled 19 Kids, the network's average prime-time ratings have actually gone up.
TLC had already bounced back from a prior molestation scandal last October, which prompted them to quickly cancel Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (a show far less important to its bottom line than 19 Kids). Earlier, A&E had weathered controversies with the stars of Duck Dynasty (it briefly suspended Phil Robertson after his homophobic comments to GQ) and Dog the Bounty Hunter (it suspended Duane Chapman for seven months in 2007 after an audiotape surfaced of him using racial slurs). In both cases, the shows continued to air without further incident.
That's why TLC hasn't given up hope of keeping the Duggar family on-air in some form, possibly with a spinoff focusing on its less controversial members. "They're letting the information get out there and then making a thoughtful decision," said the source.
Whatever TLC decides, "we are fine whether they film us or not," Jim Bob told Fox's Kelly. The same will go for the 19 Kids audience if the Duggars are indeed gone from TLC for good. "Fans will just go and watch something else," said Adgate. "Maybe on TLC, maybe on another network."