Reality Television and Altruism Porn

I’ve never been a really big fan of reality TV shows. The limit to my watching of those shows has usually been competition shows like Hell’s Kitchen or even Master Chef. Or Halloween Wars. Because oh my goodness, making magic with cake is super awesome.

This zombie wedding is made of cake, pumpkins, and sugar, y'all. Witness the awesome.
This zombie wedding is made of cake, pumpkins, and sugar, y’all. Witness the awesome.

So most of my reality TV centers around watching people make beautiful things and Gordon Ramsay shouting at people while they make beautiful things. Because both of those things are super entertaining to me.

It almost goes without saying that there is a darker side to reality television. And it comes in degrees. With shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians at the lower end of the despicability scale and shows like 19 Kids and Counting at the higher end (for obvious reasons).

But CBS has gone ahead and upped the ante on terrible reality shows with their new show The Briefcase. In case you aren’t familiar, this CBS’s write up of the show:

THE BRIEFCASE features hard-working American families experiencing financial setbacks who are presented with a briefcase containing a large sum of money and a potentially life-altering decision: they can keep all of the money for themselves, or give all or part of it to another family in need.

The sum of money they are talking about is $101,000. And the life-altering decision they are faced with is to either keep all the money or to give some portion of it to another family who is also in need. The show basically walks both families through each other’s lives – including sending them to each other’s houses – so that they can make the downright Faustian decision about whether or not they will choose to share their new-found larder with another desperate family.

There are so many things wrong with this show I wasn’t even sure where to start talking about it. So I’ll just dive right in. Take a deep breath.

First of all: The last thing we need is another show wherein the viewer gets to gawk in pity at people who are worse off than the average person watching the show. Can we all just agree that this kind of emotional pornography is not OK and move on? Good.

Secondly: Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, made over $54 million last year. Which means that he made more in a single day in 2014 than the total amount that each of these families are competing with each other to win. The amount of villainy involved involved in making these people go through an incredibly emotional choice in order to take the scraps from his table is immeasurable.

Thirdly: The people in this show are told that they will be participating in a documentary film about money. Not that they will be faced with a heart-wrenching decision made in the face of another family’s suffering under the weight of crippling debt. Which just… regardless of whether they signed waivers at the end of all this to say that they could, in fact, use the footage made in the taping of the show, still feels shockingly exploitative and fucked up to me.

Forth and finally: In Vulture, Margaret Lyons aptly called what the show is doing “altruism porn,” stating that:

The Briefcase‘s altruism pornography lets us think that shows like this “help.” I mean, those families could have gotten nothing, right? At least this way they have $202,000 between them! Except that’s not what anyone actually cares about, because if it were, this wouldn’t be a TV show: It would be a charity.

If CBS wanted to make a difference in the lives of “hardworking American families experiencing financial setbacks,” they could set up a charity. But they want to be able to watch the agony of these families while they decide whether or not to keep money that would barely even help to lift them out of debt. Over at The Billfold, Nicole Dieker points out that

You might have noticed, in the trailer, that one of the families is $490,000 in debt; $101,000 after taxes is only going to make a small dent in that burden. Likewise, if you aren’t bringing in enough money to support your family, $101,000 may help with your bills but won’t be a long-term solution.

So not only are these people being put into a position to make an impossibly emotional decision regarding the welfare of two families in similarly dire straits, but regardless of whoever gets the money, it’s not even going to really help that much?
If everything else weren’t enough, that’s about the point where I would have to check out of the entire premise of this show. All of the emotional outpourings of these families (one woman becomes so overwrought that she actually vomits) come down to almost nothing when compared with the hideous reality of the struggles they are facing.
I am deeply, profoundly disturbed by the fact that this show exists. After reading so much about it today, I need to go home and spend some quality time watching a kid’s movie and pretending that it doesn’t exist for a few hours.