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.