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And baby makes . . . ratings

For one cable channel, pregnancy is perfect reality programming

If you're looking for proof of the seductive power of reality TV, it's not in the people who make fools of themselves on talent shows, or beg for mercy from Donald Trump, or submit themselves for dating-show rejection. It's the women who allow themselves to be filmed in the act of giving birth.

On any given weekday, Discovery Health is full of them: women writhing in hospital beds, moaning in water tanks, fretting on operating tables, exposing their swollen bellies and open cervixes -- digitally blurred a bit -- to unseen camera crews. The channel's midday programming comes with more "viewer discretion advised" labels than the racy nighttime fare on FX; every half-hour, it seems, viewers are cautioned that something graphic is on the way. Birth is profound and emotional. It's beautiful, in a metaphoric sense. But on TV, it isn't pretty.

And yet it has become a niche of its own; Discovery Health, now 10 years old, has turned new motherhood into one of TV's strangest reality programming blocks. The network launched a decade ago with a single primetime series about birth. Now, the daily lineup ranges from "Baby Story" to "Birth Day" to "Babies: Special Delivery" -- all tales of pregnancies in varying stages of distress. There is "Baby Baby," about multiple births, "Baby Lab," an oft-replayed miniseries about a St. Louis fertility clinic, and "Runway Moms," which follows pregnant models. There are self-help shows, from the mildly snarky "Yummy Mummy" to the deathly serious "Surviving Motherhood." In primetime, there's also "Jon & Kate plus 8," a cautionary tale about a Pennsylvania couple with twins, septuplets, and a three-bedroom house.

In all, each week, the channel has 66 hours of baby-related programming, loosely defined to include adoption tales and shows about new mothers. And because a channel devoted to health is, by definition, devoted to what can go wrong, this amounts to worst-case-scenario TV. It's a voyeuristic look at obstacles on the road to life, enough to strike terror in anyone with a hypochondriac streak. The channel guide for one recent episode of "Baby Lab" read as a sort of haiku of doom: "An in vitro fertilization fails. A reverse vasectomy fails. Also, a miscarriage."

Yet what Discovery Health is peddling -- and its mostly-female viewers are lapping up -- is a story with a happy ending. Hurdles are overcome and the baby, staring plaintively into the camera, is the ultimate payoff. "Babies are like chocolate . . . an instant mood-boster," says Carole Tomko, Discovery Health's executive vice president and general manager. They're the pinnacle of wish-fulfillment.

Still, the babies on Discovery Health aren't just the glowing model babies on the formula commercials that air between shows. They emerge as they do in real life, covered with blood and goo, attached to thick umbilical cords. They don't look very happy upon seeing the world, and it's unclear how they will feel, many years in the future, on learning that their births were caught on camera.

Their presence, though, might be inevitable: Babies are hot right now, in a cultural sense. Pregnancy, in particular, has become an aspiration, as images of celebrities with protruding bellies fill the pages of "People" and "Us Weekly."

The celebrity cult of pregnancy, though, is aimed at consumption, and therefore at beauty. The glossies offer ample opportunity to gawk at the stars' stylish maternity gowns, or read the clever slogans on the onesies Angelina Jolie bought for her kids. We seldom hear about whether Shiloh gave her mother nosebleeds or varicose veins, or whether Julia Roberts' ankles swelled to eggplant-size when she was pregnant with twins.

On a recent episode of "Baby Baby," the cameras zoomed right in on the distended ankles of a woman carrying triplets. She hobbled around a hospital like a delicate old lady, and wept openly when told that she had to wait another week before her C-section. (She was in the UK, and her doctor matter-of-factly explained that the delivery floor was full. It's a different glimpse of socialized medicine than Michael Moore cares to offer.)

Doctors are portrayed heroically here, science is seen as a savior, and the scientists seem as emotionally invested as the parents themselves. In one episode of "Baby Lab," a fertility doctor and his lab technicians whoop with glee at the sight of cells dividing beneath a microscope.

Their work might be inspiring, but it isn't exactly aspiration, given the emotional trauma that comes with infertility. Tomko says her programming aims at building a community, which might also be defined as commiserating with others' mild misfortune. Television has to be dramatic, so on Discovery Health, no birth experience goes on without a hitch. If a mother is hell-bent on natural childbirth, chances are the baby will insist on being breech. If the baby comes out quickly, the umbilical cord might be wrapped around his neck. Even the glowing women in "Runway Moms" have their share of issues to overcome. Here is Vanessa, who once had a miscarriage. Here is Samantha, who stopped ovulating for a year after she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

There is, however, an implicit sense that nothing terrible will happen, or at least nothing irreversible. Samantha gets a drug regimen and soon is burgeoning with twins; a baby girl's club foot turns out to be mild, requiring no surgery. The saddest outcome you'll see is a woman's realization that she can't have babies at all. On one "Baby Lab" episode, two couples learned, in front of rolling cameras, that they weren't pregnant. Hope turned to heartbreak, and they sobbed.

It's hard to imagine a more emotionally vulnerable state -- or a more physically vulnerable state than some other women invite us to see themselves in, as they scream their way through contractions. Like everything else on Discovery Health, the birth scenes come with little sugarcoating; vaginal births come complete with blood and fluids, Caesarean births make no secret of gaping holes in the flesh. And of course, when delivering without drugs, the women scream, just as they do on fictional TV. On an episode of "Birth Day," two children, invited into the birthing room, watch stoically as their mother writhes in pain.

It's the hardest stuff to see, and also the most compelling; it taps into that unfortunate human impulse that draws us to the torture scenes on "24" or "Braveheart." But no fictional plot can promise such a great dramatic arc -- the lows crescendoing to stunning highs, accompanied here by gentle theme music on piano or classical guitar. True, the pain looks bad enough to scare a neophyte away from giving birth at all. But Discovery Health suspects that most women watching have been through birth already. They know how it feels, and how it ends.

And as the programmers know well, there are no diminishing returns to the emotional power of birth. You can watch it again and again -- 12, 14 times over the course of any day -- and still marvel at those tiny hands and feet and those first bleating cries. Chocolate doesn't do it justice. It's more like a powerful drug.