MTV's shockingly real show about teenage moms has become the network's unlikely hit

By Jennifer Armstrong
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Chelsea Houska saw the first season of 16 and Pregnant last summer, she was immediately hooked on the MTV docuseries — and for good reason. ”I was sitting there watching with my big old pregnant belly,” the 18-year-old says, ”and it helped me get through a lot of stuff.”

She was so moved, in fact, that she sent an e-mail to MTV detailing her own story. A month later, she had a camera crew in her South Dakota home, documenting her expanding abdomen, her imploding relationship with her boyfriend, and her close bond with her dad. ”People need to see that it can happen to anyone,” she says. ”It’s not just these bad girls who are going with all these guys. I don’t fit the stereotype.”

The same could be said of the series itself, whose unflinching look at teen pregnancy offers a stark alternative to the gloss of most other ”reality” shows, most notably MTV’s own The Hills and Jersey Shore. The unvarnished production turned into a word-of-mouth hit, delivering an impressive 3.4 million viewers for its second-season premiere on Feb. 17 (beating even Olympics coverage among female viewers under 34). It’s already becoming a franchise for the network, having spawned spin-off Teen Mom, featuring four season 1 girls, with a possible Teen Dads special in the works. ”We’re here to entertain and allow kids to escape, but we’re also here to serve up more serious fare,” says Liz Gateley, MTV’s SVP of series development. ”This show is authentically what’s going on.”

So authentic, in fact, that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy uses it in its educational materials. Rarely have teachable moments (from the perils of maternity-prom-dress shopping to the heartache of adoption proceedings)been so riveting. The best stories, exec producer Morgan J. Freeman says, come from subjects who want to really share their plights — so that’s what producers look for most when screening the candidates they find through schools, adoption agencies, and personal recommendations. Those chosen must be willing to open their lives to cameras for up to six months, through the (onscreen!) birth and aftermath. ”You can’t produce this,” he says. ”You can only follow it.”

It’s a far cry from the star-wannabe-filled ”reality” we’ve come to know and guiltily love. Even so, the subjects on 16 and Pregnant do occasionally deal with a bit of star envy. ”A lot of people at school were saying I was just trying to get famous out of doing this,” Houska says. ”But really, am I going to get my big break from being on a show about being a teenage pregnant person? I don’t know what they’re thinking.”