OK, so The Big Donor Show was an elaborate hoax.
Dutch viewers of the controversial reality TV show, from the makers of Big Brother, were treated to what at first appeared to be a prime-time contest between three prospective recipients of a kidney transplant.
The donor, in fact, turned out to be an actress. All of the contestants – genuine would-be organ recipients—were in on the hoax and took part to raise awareness of the issue of organ donation.
Big Donor was used as a Trojan horse to make what is essentially a valid point: that people awaiting organ transplants have a very tough time of it. The point is certainly worth making. There are large numbers of people who are unable to get the surgery they need to carry on largely because of public unawareness of the need.
I think, though, that there are far better and more respectful ways of making that point -- respectful of both the participants and the audience.
Was it necessary to lie to make the point? And if the answer is ‘yes’, what does that say about our culture?
Does it say that we won’t take note of something important unless it’s represented in a sensational way? Or, that we don’t notice important issues unless they’re communicated using shock treatment?
Actually, I think people are open to having their awareness raised and will respect those who try to do so without resorting to trickery. Take, as an example, the recent massive publicity given to the disappearance of young Madeleine McCann in Portugal.
In the UK, the plight of her family and their ongoing efforts to see the return of their daughter have been highlighted day and night on major TV networks and in newspapers over the past month.
Nothing that I’ve seen, heard or read thus far has suggested that the public feel in any way put off by this massive publicity of what is a shocking story. People don’t seem to be offended by the amount of airtime given to the story even though it has raised some disturbing questions about international child-abduction rings and more.
On the contrary, people have taken their cues from the media, printing up posters and using them to raise awareness of Madeleine’s situation.
People don’t need hoaxes to get them to pay attention – if the publicity is handled respectfully and with compassion. Shock treatment of the kind we’ve seen with the Big Donor hoax is the cheapest way of attracting attention – and the least influential in the long-term.
The problem with shocks is that to be effective they must become more shocking overtime. One generation’s ‘extreme’ is often the next generation’s ‘mundane’.
No major media company spends the time and money to produce and promote a prime-time project for purely altruistic reasons. Media is, after all, a business. Endemol, the company behind the hoax, want to make and need to make money.
Their target audience is the young. So, what are we saying to the young about the value of human life, when we’re willing to play games with peoples’ health – even if we say it’s in a good cause?
And what are we telling them about the way to get your point across to the world? That it’s OK to lie, as long as the people who make the show are in on the lie?
After Big Donor, I asked in a recent editorial, what’s next? And, despite the hoax, that question still stands.
After all, when you think about it, Big Donor the hoax came perilously close to being the real article. It was only at the last minute, as the actress-come-donor was about to announce the ‘winner’ that the presenter stepped in and gave the game away.
How far are we away from a real version of Big Donor? What will the next generation of Big Brother look like? What will we be asked to watch when BB finally loses its attraction, or becomes too routine to hold an audience?
Right now, much of the reality TV genre is based on putting people together in fairly extreme situations, where they are manipulated and emotionally exploited, and then capturing their responses on camera. And, hungry for affirmation, the players agree to all this.
Who’s to say, though, that someday we might not find entertainment value in turning the cameras on people who haven’t consented to being filmed?
There’s no doubt that so-called reality shows created in the Big Brother mould – if that’s your true picture of reality, you probably need to get out of the house more often – provide a form of entertainment for a great many people.
Their ratings are consistently high, especially among younger viewers.
However, we've recently seen the dangers of treating people as circus animals on TV, in the way that these shows often do.
First of all, there was the infamous Shelpa Shetty incident on Big Brother. The Bollywood actress was subjected to racist taunts by a number of her fellow housemates.
It caused a furore in the UK and in parts of Asia. An official Ofcom enquiry found that the broadcaster, Channel 4, was remiss for breaching its code in, for example, exposing children to racism via an early morning repeat of the show.
There are many very conscientious and public-spirited people within Channel 4. I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of them. I’m fairly sure the station will take note of the warning it has been given – though I’m also fairly sure that Endemol will try to find new ways to push the boundaries of public taste.
Meanwhile, Australia's Big Brother was recently criticised for deciding not to tell a contestant that her father had died. Millions of viewers were aware of her family’s tragedy before she was, as she was allowed no contact with the outside world.
At the end of the day, the only way to bring change will be for those who would otherwise have watched programmes like Big Brother and its younger siblings to switch off.