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It used to be the most private of things.

Not so long ago, the secrets of childbirth were revealed only to doctors, nurses and heavily medicated mothers-to-be. Dads were penned in smoky waiting rooms. The women would emerge later in frilly bed jackets, makeup and hair fully done, with a perfect newborn wrapped in pink or blue in their arms.

Women weren't pregnant. They were "expecting." Labour and delivery was something rarely discussed. Certainly never hashed over in groups. And cameras were verboten. The Kodak moment of previous generations was of the unsuspecting infant, held squinting like E.T. into the face of the hospital's resident photographer. The prospect of videotaping a delivery was, well, just plain gross.

How times change.

Pick up a TV guide these days and you will find that birthing a baby has become television's newest (and increasingly popular) spectator sport. On The Learning Channel, you can tune in daily to A Baby Story, a staple of the U.S. cable network's daytime lineup, or switch over to the Canadian equivalent, called Birth Stories, on Life Network. Both are reality-TV-style series that follow expectant couples through the weeks of pregnancy and into the delivery room.

Consistently, they're among the top-rated shows on TLC and Life for women ages 18 to 34, attracting on average more than three million viewers per week in the States (about 260,000 here). And the unmitigated success of these birth-as-entertainment shows has spawned grittier, more traumatic versions on the same theme, such as TLC's Maternity Ward and Labour and Delivery, or Life's Little Miracles, shot in Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

Filled with moans, groans and superfluous body fluids, these programs are not television to eat dinner by, but they are hopelessly addictive. Moms-to-be are watching, but so, too, are females of all ages, as well as a fair chunk of men. (The viewing audience is roughly 80-per-cent female.)

The stories take viewers through a gamut of emotions. There are C-sections, home births, deliveries made in wading pools, or in taxis en route to the hospital. Some women gratefully get topped up with pain-numbing drugs. Others are hard-labouring Trojans who grit their teeth and crush the bones in the hands of their terrified mates.

As a viewer you might feel queasy, tense, teary-eyed or catch yourself grinning like a fool when that slippery, squirming baby pops out.

While these shows are real-life stories, the producers who make them chafe at the reality-TV label. As Gail Gallant, series producer of Cineflix Productions-made Birth Stories, puts it, these programs are unscripted snapshots into what goes on in hospitals and in homes of families at perhaps the most important moment in their lives.

"Bringing a baby into their lives is a breathtaking challenge for most people," says Gallant, who has a 14-year-old son. "Especially if it's their first. It's always pivotal. Nothing is ever the same again. There are always personal issues that become manifest. Babies are a great litmus test.

"They [the babies]bring out their [parents]strengths and weaknesses. As a society, we like to think having babies is a fairly casual thing. And we put quite a bit of effort into showing we're not sweating. The truth is, you don't have to focus very hard on an individual situation to see how much stuff people are dealing with."

It's cinéma vérité, insists Gallant, not reality TV. There are no buffed contestants or $1,000 prizes. These people will not get on Oprah or Larry King. Done in documentary style, these programs aim to show couples candidly describing their anxieties and emotions during pregnancy and birth.

"When you look at reality television, which in general has a pretty bad reputation, most of it deals with things that are superficial or artificial," says Gallant, who is now starting the third season of Birthing Stories. "I tell people that our show is a series about courage, fear, vulnerability, pain, suffering, faith, hope and strength of character."

Typically, the producers of these programs solicit couples for the show through announcements at the end of each episode, the season, or through the program's Web page. These cattle calls have not resulted in a circus of shameless attention-seekers. In fact, most of the people who have signed up to tell their birthing story are ordinary folk, who don't get paid for their troubles (they do get to keep a deluxe version of the keepsake home video). There's a variety of parents-to-be chosen: white, African-American, Latino, Jewish, blue-collar, yuppie, rural, urban and punkers have been featured.

Suzie Toussaint, who lives in Ajax, Ont., with her husband and two small kids, was inspired to sign up as a participant on Birth Stories last fall after she saw an episode while on bed rest (with her second pregnancy) in Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. Toussaint, 39, suffers from an excruciating thyroid condition that necessitates being medicated with morphine. She also has a bleeding disorder.

She volunteered to be on the show because, 'I thought it would be neat for everyone to see the challenge. It took us nine years to get pregnant, we did fertility drugs for our two-year-old, Cassia. I just wanted to share what I was going through."

Initially, Toussaint's husband, Greg, was not keen on the idea. But he eventually agreed. Gallant and her cameras were there when Toussaint was induced into labour. The mother said she had no qualms about the camera being in the delivery room. Her baby Matisse is now five months old.

"Initially, I thought we'd be filming from my head, but because my husband wanted to deliver the baby, they were actually down at that end," Toussaint, a part-time dental assistant, explains. "I had some concerns about that, but I was fine with the footage because it was tasteful. I was just happy to share what we went through with our pregnancy. It makes that special day stand out more than it normally would."

At the birth, Toussaint's two grown children from a previous marriage were also present. Now, she says she's constantly stopped by people who have seen that particular episode. "My son works at Canada Trust and a woman came up to him and said I saw you on Birth Stories," she says, laughing. "I walked into a fish-and-chip shop the other day, and the owner had seen it. An 80-year-old couple down the street from us also watched it. It truly amazes me who watches these shows."

Jana Bennett, TLC's general manager, says A Baby Story, which first aired in the fall of 1998, touched off a furor about all things to do with having a baby. Bennett believes the accessibility of the video camera, which has meant that people now tape home videos of births (and then torture their friends to sit through them) smoothed the way for her program to be readily accepted.

"What we're talking about here is a fundamental drama: the struggle of birth. It's a huge threshold for anyone to cross. It's scary and rather mysterious. All those things make it quite appealing." TLC did World Birth Day, a two-hour special that ran New Year's Day, showcasing births (and various birthing customs) from around the world. The program could have been a bust. Bennett says it ended up as TLC's best-ever-rated special event.

Still, one of the big hurdles for the shows' producers is hospital access. In the United States, Gallant says a few medical institutions have been drawn into lawsuits over footage that aired, leaving some hospitals and staff understandably leery about co-operating with the programs.

Indeed, Gallant says the toughest challenge she and her production team faces is maintaining a good working relationship with the doctors and nurses who are as critical to the show's survival as the parent participants.

"We enter into an understanding with them that we won't interfere with the quality of care. If at any moment they want us to stop shooting, we leave. For instance, last season we left during a C-section when someone started hemorrhaging. There was another situation where the baby needed resuscitation, and they asked us not to use the footage of the baby in that state. We did not."

Gallant admits that when she was first approached by the folks at Montreal-based Cineflix to do Birth Stories, she balked. "My first impression, when I heard the title, was 'Is this something Hallmark and sentimental?' I wasn't interested in doing that kind of television."

But she took home four tapes, and got hooked. "There is something about the moment of birth, when the emotions are still so fundamentally human. People talk about their absolute newborn in a way they'll never talk about their child again. There's a kind of purity -- perfectness -- at that moment in our lives that is almost impossible to recapture."

That must be it, then. These shows freeze that one moment of gratitude and humility. That moment affirms choices, and makes you feel good.