Watching pieces of ABC's Sunday Night Lineup last night, I was again struck by how revolting their "give back" shows are.
The script for Extreme Makeover Home Edition is simple. Find a pathetic family with a giving spirit, glorify their suffering for 20 minutes, then heap conspicuous consumption on them to make all their problems go away. From the 15 mintues of Oprah's Big Give I saw last night, they're just elaborating on the theme by turning it into an Apprentice-style format where people compete to see who can "give" in the most significant or effective way.
I'd like to coin a new term to describe shows like these: Charity Porn. To me, these shows resemble regular porn in three key ways:
- They provide a simulated voyeuristic experience that allows the viewer to approximate but not duplicate the feelings exerpienced by those engaging in the act itself.
- These shows almost always involve the exploitation of those being put on tape.
- Worst of all, they delude the viewer into thinking something significant has happened, thereby reducing their motivation to take steps to accomplish a significant and authentic experience of the same.
Let's take the similarities in order. First, watching these shows does make us feel good inside, we get the warm fuzzies, and on some level, we actually feel like we are making a difference in people's lives just by watching. Our eyeballs drive revenue to one of the "good" shows on TV. We feel like watching is a charitable act in itself. Of course it isn't real charity, so there is a small feeling of hollowness when we're done. Why would that be?
Because of the second point. In order for these shows to be as effective as possible, the show producers have to find the most pathetic, down-on-their luck families to give to so that the emotional payoff at the end is as rewarding as possible. In order to pull that off, those "lucky" enough to make it on the show have to sacrifice their pride and dignity and allow themselves to be seen as pathetic people desperately in need of "help". We're basically watching people allow themselves to be exploited on TV so they can get a nice new house, new big-screen TVs, and maybe some cash. Or playground equipment in the case of last night's Oprah's Big Give. Cue the darkened film, the slow motion, and the voiceover describing how poor, disadvantaged, and miserable these kids are. All they have to do is agree to be shown on TV looking desperate, and they get a new basketball hoop. How is this different from a woman allowing herself to be sexually exploited for money? Both involve an exchange of dignity for material goods. Sounds like porn to me.
And that brings me to my last point. The most insidious effect of these shows is to reassure us into complacency regarding the plight of those around us. We don't feel inspired to "give back" to the community like so many of the shows' subjects do. We think "Isn't that nice that this show is taking care of these people so I don't have to?" Instead of wondering why our country has no social safety net, why "lottery ticket" winning like these are so essential to so many American families, and then challenging us to address that inequality, the show makes us feel like we're meeting our "good deed quote" for the week simply by watching.
Last night on Oprah's Big Give, they went to an elementary school in Houston that had no playground equipment. The basketball hoops had no backboards and were really just bent poles sticking out of the ground. There was no playscape, no playground at all, really, just a small pipe barrier about 9 inches off the ground to mark off the playground from the adjoining parking lot. These poor kids, they have it so rough. But the tone is more "how unfortunate for these poor kids, let's change their lives, because we're such good people", rather than "wow, our distorted social policy has made decrepit schools like this the norm rather than the exception." We have the power to change this on a grand scale, not just one school or one family at a time with millions in TV dollars subsidizing the charity.
That's why these shows are Charity Porn. They give the illusion of delivering the real thing, but in reality, all they do is exploit people and keep the viewer even further from getting close to the real thing.