Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Competitive Philanthropy

Oprah's Big Give is the latest reality-competition show to arrive on our TV screens as a result of the Writers Strike. I'm not sure if it qualifies as the most interesting of these series, but it does come across as unusual in its premise – the competitors in this show aren't aiming to make money but to give it away. If nothing else the show is probably an ideal companion to ABC's other "give something back to deserving people" show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Oprah in Oprah's Big Give is of course Oprah Winfrey, she who turns books into best sellers and invigorates presidential campaigns ber presence. Oh yeah, and she's one of the richest women in show business. Oprah is the public face of The Big Give, a position which I suppose makes her the "anti-Trump." The show is produced by Winfrey and the team of Bert van Munster and Elise Doganieri whose other show is the best reality competition series on TV (for as long as that category has been given out at the Emmys), The Amazing Race. All of this represents a pretty good pedigree for the show. The thing is that I'm not sure that the final product lives up to the promise. It sort of comes across as another Apprentice clone except that this time it's better o give than receive.

The show started off on Sunday with ten participants (I don't like the word "contestants" for this, and I refuse to use the term "givers"). These are people with some "street cred" in terms of giving back to the community. They included a young Nigerian born biochemist who set up a foundation to held deformed children in Nigeria, a parapalegic media executive who set up an online community for wounded Iraq war veterans, a 22-year old dot com millionaire who is on the board of a Virginia organization that works at keeping at-risk students in school, a singer who has set up an organization to serve as a safe haven in Brooklyn's inner city, and a former army officer who helped to mentor other soldiers and now serves as minority recruiter for West Point. The participants are given a sum of money and an assignment to help a specific person. Giving away money to a specific person, sounds easy right?

Well of course it isn't easy. The money that the contestants get is meant to serve as seed money for the participants to raise a real bankroll for the people they were supposed to help and to get them what they needed. It went beyond cold calling people and organizations for donations and meant setting up fund raising events. First of course the participants had to get to know the people they were raising money for. They were a fairly diverse group, each with compelling individual stories. There was the woman whose husband was shot to death at a robbery and who worried about getting her kids into good schools and keeping her home. There was a woman living in a homeless shelter after dealing with spousal abuse, and the mother of a Down Syndrome child who set up an organization to provide care and musical education for kids like her son. There was a young med student who needed to pay off his school loans so that he could afford to practice in his inner city neighbourhood.

Naturally the show was judged. After all, a show like this can't just be based on how much money the participants are able to raise for the people they're working to help. A bigger factor is the impact of what they've been able to do will have on the life of the person receiving the help. And of course, Oprah couldn't do the judging herself, so she picked three celebrity judges with a background of charity or other good works. These were British chef Jamie Oliver, who established a restaurant for training disadvantaged youth, and worked with the British government on a pilot program to improve the quality of the food served in Britain's state schools; Malaak Compton-Rock (the wife of Chris Rock) who works with a variety of organizations including Safe Horizon, the largest victims assistance organization in the US; and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose foundation supports groups for kids including Shadow Buddies and the Boys and Girls Clubs. The judges had a variety of qualities that they were judging on, including the impact that the things the participants were able to accomplish for the people they were working with (which isn't necessarily based on the money raised), to organization to imponderables like "heart."

Once we got beyond the initial meeting with Oprah (who only appeared for about five minutes total on the show) things are handed off to host Nate Berkus. He has even less air time than Oprah if you can believe that, but he was heard a lot. He explains how the teams are set up for this first task. Each person is given an envelope with their money and the picture of the person they are supposed to help and some of their pertinent details. The person who has the photo matching theirs is their partner for the task. Once they find the person they have to help – if they do, since there was one team who spent the entire first day of the five days they have to help lost in Southern California – it was time for the heart warming personal stories of why they need help. After that we saw the partners working the phones and setting up meetings and events. Some of the ideas were really strong, like an appeal at a church, others were incredibly weak, like a fashion show where the attendees were asked to put money into the purses of the models to contribute to the medical student, which I suspect was the first time that any of them had heard of this aspect of the event. And since this isn't ordinary philanthropy but a reality competition show that is focused around philanthropy, there were "confessionals" where participants talk about how well or how badly their partner was doing, and scenes of them working together well or arguing about details. There were also visits from the judges who had their own confessionals sessions with the cameras, evaluating the progress of the teams. Eventually, after the charity events were completed the judges evaluated the teams, although there seemed to be little back and forth between them and the participants. Finally, after the evaluations were completed each of the participants was handed an envelope. If their envelope contained a plane ticket they'd be continuing on. The one person whose envelope was empty, an AMTRAK service agent who didn't seem to contribute much even to a very poor effort – to help a Marine home from Iraq to get a new home for his family – would not be going on.

I am seriously conflicted by this show. I like the notion of a show about people doing good works for others and if the best way to set this up is to make it a reality competition show, well so be it. I'm sure that this is exactly the sort of show that will rack up a number of the PTC's "Best show of the week" accolades. However there are aspects of the show that I find troubling on an altruistic level. There's no indication of how or why these specific people and their causes were chosen to be helped. Now I'm not one of those people who are going to criticise the show because I don't think that the people who were helped on Sunday's show were somehow unworthy of the help they got – to find those you need go no further than the ABC message boards for the show. I'm just wondering how they in particular were picked. Something that I find much more troubling is that in making philanthropy into a competition you create winners and losers. Now for the participants who signed up for the show that's fine – the losers get to go home to their normal lives – but they aren't the only winners and losers. Among the people who were being given to there were also winners and losers. The woman whose husband was killed in a robbery clearly "won." She had her house paid off and an education fund assured for her kids. But about the Iraq war veteran whose assigned participants couldn't even find him for a day, and when they did they did so badly at trying to help him that one of them was eliminated from the show. Should he – or we – be content that it was just the luck of the draw that left him in the situation he's in?

As for the show itself, it seemed as though an hour wasn't enough to gain all of the details of the plans that the various participants were working for the people they were there to help. Presumably this will change as there are fewer participants, but during the first episode you always had the sense of being rushed and wondering where did this come from and how did they find a money coach for this person. The other factor, which is probably not so great a concern is Oprah's degree of involvement. Her limited participation in the first episode at least created a sense that her direct involvement may be limited to having her name on the title of the show. Now of course her production company is a full participant in the show, but I can't help but wonder if the "feel good factor" is enough to compensate for the absence of the person with her name on the show for Oprah Winfrey fans.

I have no doubt that Oprah Winfrey's Big Give will be a considerable success for ABC even though it is a not very well disguised reimagining of The Apprentice. I'm just not that comfortable with the whole idea of compassion and philanthropy as a competitive sport, particularly when the degree to which a person the participants are trying to help gets left behind because of it.

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