Ratings Reality: Adoption as Entertainment

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This just in:
The television landscape is littered with garbage. It exists to sell you stuff. Oh, and it's also not very good for your family. Sorry.

During a recent sweeps-rating month 48 Hours ran an hour-long story called "The Perfect Child." It sent shock waves through the adoption community and did well in the ratings. If you have worked in television, you could probably recite the entire story line by line before it even aired.

Husband and wife go to Russia to adopt a little girl. They come home with her--the "perfect child" --and an infant boy. They "discover" the little girl is mentally ill and has, among other things, RAD--Reactive Attachment Disorder--the bogeyman in the closet of every adoptive family. The child acts out in various horrific ways climaxing in an attempt to murder the little boy. The couple accompanies their "daughter" back to Russia, to an institution. They tell her they will return for her. They won't.

I'm guessing that in the last sixty seconds, the news anchor/personality intoned something like, "Not all families who adopt have to deal with this kind of tragedy..." I'm also guessing there was no video available of those families.

My husband and I are adoptive parents-in-waiting. (We should have returned from China with our daughter by the time this is published.) I know the joy and the commitment that characterizes the international adoption community. I know how stories like this one reverberate and do harm to the future of international adoption.

And I could produce this story in my sleep. I was trained to do this story. And I've done it hundreds of times. I spent almost nine years on the production staff of one of the network morning shows. During those nine years, we were consistently Number #1 in the ratings.
There is one major rule in television: get good ratings. Get the kind of ratings that attract the kind of viewers that advertisers want. Do it however you can or you can find yourself owning that most dreaded fashion accessory--the pink slip. Try not to embarrass the network by your actions, try not to get them sued and try not to get caught doing anything reprehensible. Getting awards for "quality" programming is good, but not mandatory. Just get the ratings. Get the booking. Get the survivor. Get the victim. And get it before the competition does.

It should come as no surprise that CBS aired this story during a sweeps period, when advertising rates are determined. Every season it gets harder to keep our butts on the sofa and our hands off the remote. During sweeps, the need for viewers who will stay tuned in for the full hour is critical. Traditionally, stories of murderous children, teenage prostitution and horrific crimes abound during sweeps, because these stories reliably get viewers in for the long haul.

So if you are doing a story - any story - finding one that strikes terror into the heart is good. For adoption, RAD is a wonderful choice. It hits on so many hot buttons: our ability to parent, our fears of parenting and loving a child that is not biologically ours, and a universal fear of children as victims AND as perpetrators. If there are 99 families with successful adoption stories and one with a tragic disruption, you go with #100.

CBS was contacted by many national and international groups involved in eastern European adoption that knew that story #100 was on the way. There was a concerted campaign to let the network know that a) attachment disorders are something adoptive (and biological) families sometimes face and b) thousands of families have adopted and are doing just fine. This severe form of RAD is not the norm. Attachment disorders are a worthy subject of discussion in a reality based, non-exploitative manner.

CBS's response was to air the show as planned. We watched a mentally ill child, an infant at risk, a disrupted adoption, and a couple who abused their parental responsibilities by allowing children's pain to be on display.

How were the producers able to find people who would expose children to this spotlight?
It's easy.

People will sell their souls to be on TV. They will sell their children's souls. Parental consent was mandatory for every story that I booked involving children. And even when it was a human-interest story of the most intimate nature, parental cooperation was never a problem. It is fun to be televised. It is an experience like no other. To say that it is a diversion when your life is falling apart is an understatement.

It would be impossible to count the number of times I have convinced families to bleed on national TV because it was "helping someone else." I actually believed it, too. The job is too intense, exciting, and competitive to not believe it. So please, Parental Figure, the people of America need to hear your story. And we need those same people of America to park their rears on the couch because I need mine to stay in my nicely appointed office.

Perhaps this couple believed they were performing a public service. Perhaps they were blinded by the distracting light of attention and a sudden intimacy with fabulous and famous people that would ordinarily not give them a glance. So they allowed the disintegration of their family to be televised so that millions of people would be captivated long enough to see the commercials for New Improved Stuff and realize that they really do need some New Improved Stuff. It's a win-win situation for the parents, the producers, the network execs and the makers of Stuff, in all of its wonderful variations.

After 48 Hours aired, Harriet McCarthy of the Eastern European Adoption Coalition, asked, "Has the media become so extraordinarily out of touch with society that it feels it acceptable to generate ratings by sensationalizing a child's mental illness?" The answer is no and yes. The "media" --that is, the people that put together news magazine shows that consistently rate in the top 20 on a weekly basis--are very much "in touch" with society. You can shout from the rooftops that you want to see less garish and gory TV.

Unfortunately, centuries of human behavior and decades of television ratings prove the contrary. Because for a million reasons too depressing to enumerate, since the first caveman hooked up his antenna, nothing seems to keep people glued to their set, plucked and dressed for the next advertisement, than someone else's pain.

So, yes, it is acceptable to generate ratings by sensationalizing a child's mental illness. We make it acceptable. You can probably watch a child-in-pain story at least 365 times this year. You can cry at the sadness of their little lives and gasp at the horror they must endure--from a safe distance.

For those of us who have created a family through adoption, there is no distance safe enough. Exploiting and stigmatizing the process that has brought us our sons and daughters strikes us at our core. But as teaching tools or reflections of our lives, these "news" programs are meaningless. They are no more a realistic portrayal of adoption than "Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire" is a realistic portrayal of marriage.

So what can you do? First of all, the next time some incredibly charming person like myself calls and wants to profile your family for a TV audience say "no." Secondly, you could watch less TV and understand that what you watch is mostly filler between ads. And finally, you could buy less Stuff.

And in other news...
There will be lots of upcoming news magazine shows that will feature children in crisis, abandoned to the spotlight. Throughout the world, children will be born and then live out their lives in orphanages, foster homes, and on the streets. Our kids will continue to struggle with their identity and with perceived expectations that the circumstances of their birth render them always slightly suspect .TV producers and celebrities, some of whom have sons and daughters from China and Russia and Guatemala, will continue to make a lot of money. Thus are the consequences of our own precarious sense of self, our curiosity, and our boredom.

Judy Woodruff is a former TV producer and New Yorker. She is now a freelance writer and student at Purdue University. This summer she and her husband, Glenn, are expecting to travel to China for the most important event in their lives--to bring their daughter home. For more information on families-in-waiting, visit http://www.woodruffs.com

Credits: Judy Woodruff

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