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Shows about little people draw giant ratings

When reality TV first came calling, Bill Klein and fiancee Jen Arnold just said no.

"The producers approached us to do a wedding show," Klein says, after seeing energetic Dr. Jen featured on "Good Morning America" for her work as a Stony Brook University Medical Center neonatologist. "But we just didn't have the time to dedicate to doing a television show while coordinating a wedding. We didn't really feel like it was the right move for us. So we turned them down."

But docusoap producers knew a telegenic modern couple when they saw one. Jen was moving to a new job at prestigious Houston Children's Hospital. Port Jefferson Station native Bill would start working long-distance for his Emerge sales consulting firm. The two would be designing a new house and planning a family.

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So the producers came back with a different idea. "And after mulling around the potential," Klein says, "we decided to move forward."

That's how Bill and Jen became the next stars in cable TV's latest unscripted trend - daily life ride-alongs with little people.

Their hit series, "The Little Couple," now shooting its third season for a June return, is just one of four shows with which TLC has been cornering the market on docusoaps built around people 4 feet tall.

Trendsetting fifth-season family smash "Little People, Big World" starts new episodes April 5. Other TLC projects spotlight the title Utah couple of "Little Chocolatiers" (premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m.) and Ohio parents raising an average-size baby in "Our Little Life" (which moves to Discovery Health this Tuesday at 9 p.m.).

Animal Planet is also in the mix, having just renewed January arrival "Pit Boss" (Monday 9-11 p.m.), about short-statured inner-city L.A. tough guy and pit bull rescuer Shorty Rogers.

Even MTV seems interested. RealityWanted.com currently has a casting notice seeking "little people for stunts on MTV game show 'Silent Library.' "

Which is likely not the kind of portrayal that persuaded "Little People, Big World" star Amy Roloff to invite TLC cameras onto the family's Oregon pumpkin farm, from which she, her husband, Matt, and their four kids have become global stars.

Roloff says she wanted viewers to see "a regular family that faces challenges and that happens to have dwarfism and happens to be considered as having disabilities," she says by phone. "We learn a lot about ourselves through this whole process, and we normalize dwarfism."

"Little People, Big World" took viewers outside Portland to the Roloffs' pumpkin farm, which hosts fall-season outdoor activities. Initially seen as a financial struggle to maintain, the farm grew into a tourist attraction as their TLC show became a hit. Viewers have followed the family through all kinds of ordinary activities - soccer games, house renovations, first dates, vacation travel. There also was Matt's 2007 trial for drunken driving (the judge ruled him not guilty), and a serious accident with a pumpkin catapult, which resulted in hospital stays for son Jacob and adult family friend Mike Detjen. (His heart-related death two years later provided more drama.)

But from the start, "LPBW" revealed the challenges of the Roloffs' dwarfism - reactions to their size in public, physical obstacles they encounter, the family's visits to Little People of America gatherings and dwarf athletic competitions.

 

Some came up short

TV hadn't exactly portrayed dwarfs quite so naturally in the years leading up to the Roloffs' debut. There was Jason Acuña as Wee-Man on MTV's crude stunt show "Jackass," and the Fox dating spectacle "The Littlest Groom," which landed on Time magazine's list of Top 10 Skanky Reality Shows. And it wasn't as if scripted TV had done all that much better. "The only person of short stature popular when I was a kid," says Comsewogue High graduate Klein, "was on 'Fantasy Island' , and I don't even know if there was a point to that character."

He has clear admiration for the Roloffs. "They've done a lot for us [little people] as individuals," he says by phone. "Seeing them in mainstream society breaks down a barrier. You see they're just average individuals, trying to make it in a world that isn't easy, regardless of stature."

Indeed, the Roloffs' show has endured because they resonate foremost as a typical family. Their lives seem relatable. Same with Jen and Bill of "The Little Couple." Tuesday's TLC premiere of "Little Chocolatiers" introduces Salt Lake City's Steve and Katie Hatch in their Hatch Family Chocolates workplace, commissioned to create an edible, full-size desk complete with chocolate books and pencils.

 

Trying them on for size

TLC is hoping for high ratings, which is why little people are a program trend. The channel tested the waters for all these programs as one-hour specials, notes Nancy Daniels, TLC's senior vice president of production and development. "And our audience clearly reacted and liked these shows, so we went into extended series."

"Little People, Big World" averages nearly 2 million viewers in prime time. "The Little Couple" averages 1.3 million viewers.

Perhaps the initial lure is to look at people of unusual size. But these series' episodes unfold as real-life tales of daily obstacles overcome. Some are specific to size, but many aren't.

"There was one thing that Jen was kicking herself about after we turned down the wedding show," Klein says. "We would have had such a good videographer."

 

Giants among small-statured performers

By Diane Werts, Special to Newsday

Little people on scripted TV have evolved from oddities to ordinary characters over the past few decades. Some of the performers and portrayals:

BILLY BARTY - Hollywood's best-known little person, his TV credits include "The Spike Jones Show" (1954), "Peter Gunn" (1959) and Tim Conway's "Ace Crawford, Private Eye" (1983).

MICHAEL DUNN ("The Wild Wild West," 1965-68) - The Tony and Oscar nominee ("Ship of Fools") achieved cult status as Dr. Loveless, the evil mastermind forever thwarted by Old West secret agents.

DAVID RAPPAPORT ("The Wizard," 1986-87) - The "Time Bandits" schemer starred as a gifted inventor fleeing villains who would exploit his skills.

MICHAEL J. ANDERSON ("Twin Peaks," 1990-91; "Carnivale," 2003-05) - The supporting actor was memorable in two distinctively moody, fantasy-tinged dramas.

DANNY WOODBURN ("Seinfeld," 1994-98) - Best known as Kramer's volatile friend Mickey, he's also an advocate for disabled performers.

DEBBIE LEE CARRINGTON ("In Living Color," 1991-92; "The Drew Carey Show," 1999-2000) - She was the sketchcom's Tiny Avenger (sidekick to disabled superhero Handi-Man) and the sitcom's Mini-Mimi.

MEREDITH EATON ("Family Law," 2001-02; "Boston Legal," 2006-08) - In both series, the Hewlett native played a no-nonsense attorney whose stature was mostly irrelevant.

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