Some call it a guilty pleasure. Others call it exploitive. Either way you look at it, TLC's reality series "Toddlers & Tiaras" is drawing big audiences that are showing up to see young girls (and a few boys) enter the world of beauty pageants. Cameras are not only brought into the pageants but also into the homes of the pageant contestants who are often (but not always) as driven as their parents to win the top prizes. The third season of "Toddlers and Tiaras" kicked off this month so our Jim Halterman talked with TLC's VP of Production and Development Howard Lee about why the show is so popular and what he thinks is the network's responsibility is in broadcasting the controversial series.
Jim Halterman: Can you tell me how the show came about in the first place?
Howard Lee: It started originally with a show that we had tried out in the early stages of TLC about two and a half years ago. It was a quick one-hour show and we wanted to examine this world. We were so surprised at how fascinated people were by this world and so we realized there was an opportunity to go further. We didn't realize there were so many amazing, passionate mothers, daughters, sons and fathers in this world. Doing one episode was not going to do it justice since there is such a wide spectrum of people to cover.
JH: What do you think is the appeal of the show?
HL: I think it's so alien to what our audience is accustomed to see. They're always so surprised that this world even exists and it's a real peek into this world in which these people are so enthusiastic and they care so passionately about winning and they've never seen anything like it. It's as simple as that.
JH: So many of the people on the show seem to be from the South. Are these pageants primarily a Southern staple?
HL: It is a Southern staple but it's definitely across the country, too. We even had one episode last season that was in Brooklyn.
JH: Is there a difference in the pageants and the people no matter where you are in the country?
HL: The people are very competitive and very passionate. They care a lot about winning and they truly believe that their daughter or son has a sparkle that the world should see and I see that no matter what state, neighborhood, town we're in.
JH: What makes for a good subject to feature on each episode?
HL: Enthusiasm. Zest. A real joy. We really like to follow people who really, really love competing. That just really pops and you can see that. That's the most important thing to us - that passion in winning.
JH: When you go into the homes and you're filming, what rules are established?
HL: We film what's happening. We find out what you're doing in preparation in rehearsal for the pageant. We find out their schedules and we go in on those days when they are either going to a new dance instructor or doing something in terms of their hair or makeup. We want to see the preparation.
JH: As producers of the show, what do you think is your responsibility in showing this world?
HL: I think our responsibility is to be very objective and to make sure that we don't interfere with the parents and how they choose to have their child participate in the pageant or how they raise their child. We don't think that that is our area of expertise that we should dabble into or tell. Our position is truly 'Hi, we're here to shoot this today.' We find out what they're doing and document it and tell that story. It's as simple as that. We get a great reaction from the parents after it airs. They just enjoy it.
JH: How do the kids respond to the cameras suddenly following them around their home?
HL: It's interesting because I think the cameras are invisible to them. They're young so they're just doing what they do and the same for the parents as well. It's just really what's going on in that household with the preparation.
JH: Are the prizes generally cash prizes for winning these pageants?
HL: The pageants dictate that on their own. They're so various so it's hard to say one thing or another. Either it's a tiara or a cash prize for winning but the pageants control that.
JH: Do we ever get follow-ups on the kids who were seen in past episodes so we can see where they are today?
HL: In fact, we do have upcoming episodes for season 3 where we go back and revisit some of the toddlers we have seen in seasons 1 and 2. Of course, Eden Wood, she is one of the most popular competitors and she is back in the episodes but, yes, some of them are coming back and you'll see what's going on with them.
JH: In general, TLC has so many different types of programs, what is it about reality shows in general that has struck a chord with audiences?
HL: I think people enjoy peeking into other people's lives. You come home at the end of the day and you want to see an escape from your own life and see how other people live. I am either like them and it's very relatable or it's 'Whoa! I'm nothing like these people!'
"Toddlers and Tiaras" airs Wednesdays at 10:00/9:00c on TLC.