In the summer of 2005, television producer Bill Hayes was sitting at his desk in Carrboro, N.C., when his partner and production manager Deanie Wilcher told him about a potential lead. Hayes and his company, Figure 8 Films, had been looking for large families to serve as documentary subjects, and the family Wilcher had found fit the bill: twin daughters and a set of sextuplets. Hayes picked up the phone and called the young Pennsylvania couple, who were excited about television and liked the idea of creating a visual memento for their eight children.
The special eventually aired on Discovery Health under the inconspicuous title Surviving Sextuplets and Twins. Eileen O’Neill, then-president of Discovery Health and herself a twin, pushed for the show to become a regular series. After a few episodes had aired, corporate cousin TLC poached the show, and a much larger audience was soon introduced to Jon and Kate Gosselin.
The Gosselins eventually soured on television, or perhaps it’s the other way around. When Jon’s indiscretions became public in the spring, viewers divided into rival camps, and the couple split on national television this summer. The divorce episode was one of TLC’s highest-rated programs ever, pulling in more than 10 million viewers. Since then, the process of returning Jon and Kate to the air this fall has gone from messy to absurd. Jon was pulled from the show’s title, Kate accused Jon of stealing from her bank account, and TLC was dragged into the tabloid imbroglio. The network sued Jon for breach of contract after he blocked filming of the new season. Earlier this week, the show aired its final episode, bringing a perhaps welcome end to the series.
In the middle of the drama—if not on camera or in the gossip pages—was Bill Hayes, whose company was tasked with cobbling together the footage that was shot before filming was halted. To Hayes and Figure 8, the drama surrounding Jon and Kate has mostly been a distraction. The extramarital comings and goings have never been a big part of the show, which sets Jon and Kate apart from programming in VH1’s “Celebreality” lineup, where infidelities and betrayals have been front-and-center from the beginning. Jon and Kate, the series, was about a big family trying to make their lives work. Hayes and his team worked to ensure that the show had a narrow focus. It was meant to be about the quotidian challenges of changing diapers—lots of them.
Unlike ambulance-chasing production companies that amplify the antics of their attention-seeking subjects, Hayes tries to avoid spectacle and decided to avoid, largely, the seductive drama of the Gosselin divorce. That said, his interest in the surreal aspects of human life is not exactly marked with journalistic detachment. He told me, for instance, that a Brazilian faith healer he met several years ago lowered his cholesterol through “invisible surgery.” Hayes was first introduced to a large, eccentric family in high school. Located in the hills of North Carolina, the school was populated by the descendants of brothers Eng and Chang Bunker, a set of conjoined Thai twins who moved to the region in the early 19th century and produced more than 20 children. The descendants populate the Tar Heel landscape and, every year, hold a family reunion, which Hayes has attended.
After graduating from Duke, Hayes dreamed of making documentaries while he worked at sundry pursuits. A former bartender, farmer, and assistant press secretary for a U.S. Senate candidate, Hayes got his start in production by making a promotional video for a mall that was looking for publicity. The project landed him a job at a local production company.
In 1987, he launched Advanced Medical Education (which much later would become Figure 8), and produced videos for doctors who wanted to learn about new medical techniques. He spent hours documenting surgical procedures and, after seeing a show about surgery on the Learning Channel (as it was once wistfully called), he talked with a young producer named Mike Quattrone about producing his own operating-room series. The Operation aired in 1993 and was a success—it would remain on the air for six years. Hayes fashioned the show like a 30-minute drama with a simple style that would characterize his later work. You’d follow the patient from intake to recovery with copious interviews of doctors and patients along the way.
The shift to documenting strange human behavior was “a gentle evolution,” Hayes says and, perhaps, a natural one given his curiosity about the workings of the human body. He produced shows like Mysteries of Cold Water Survival and Super Obese. But his first special on the Gosselins was occasioned by a new popular interest in big families and marked a shift in focus for Figure 8. Though Jon and Kate is no more, Hayes still has two more big-family series to occupy his time: Table for 12 and 18 Kids and Counting, the latter starring America’s favorite Web-site-tending mega-family, the Duggars.
With series of this nature, there’s a natural tendency to wonder whether the audience is entertained or merely gawking. Even docudrama filmmakers with the best intentions wed their fates to the unstable lives of the subjects they film. Hayes’ situation is also the problem of the smaller cable network: tying your credibility and brand identity to the instability of men like Jon Gosselin. Jon and Kate is the most popular program that Hayes has ever developed, but that popularity has come with costs. During our first conversation, Hayes lapsed into regret. The dissolution of the Gosselin family upsets him.
The bigger problem, however, might be a business one. The Jon and Kate affair may have exhausted the public’s patience for large family shows. Ratings for Table for 12 have been modest, and ratings for the last iteration of Jon and Kate fell back to earth as well: This week’s finale drew about 4 millions viewers, a significant decline from the divorce episode. You could argue that these dips are proof that the public’s interest in Jon and Kate—and perhaps for all of Hayes’ work—may be winding down.
But a better explanation might be that without the Gosselin divorce to enliven the show, the audience simply lost interest. In the final episode, the paparazzi were merely a backdrop. Mostly, it was clips of the family visiting the fire department and milking cows. Of course, Hayes says that’s all Figure 8 was trying to do in the first place: to paint a portrait of a big family trying to get to the dentist.
Documentary filmmakers often face a difficult choice: They can either turn their work into sensationalist pap or suffer the attention-starved fate of the talented but unappreciated auteurs hoping for a shot at nontheatrical release on HBO. Hayes has had the rare distinction of watching his company’s work enjoy widespread popularity without the content of his products changing all that much. Had there been no divorce, no paparazzi, no “Team John” and “Team Kate,” Figure 8 would still be camped out in the Gosselin home, cameras in hand, following those eight precocious children from room to room, grade to grade. “It’s sad, because we were in the middle of our stride,” Hayes says. “There were still so many stories to tell.”