Can TV ever Pay-It-Forward?

March 11, 2008

On Sunday March 2nd at 9pm Oprah Winfrey’s first foray into primetime, reality television lit up the screens. ABC in the US aired the first episode of Oprah’s Big Give. 15.6 million viewers tuned in to see the billionaire talk-show queen preside over her latest vision. It was the third highest rating premiere in the US this year; beaten by Moment of Truth and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (I’m assuming this is not the same group of 15 odd million Americans). It’s hosted by one of Oprah’s flock of discoveries – interior designer Nate Berkus. Guess we’re lucky it’s not Dr Phil.

Contestants travel to unfamiliar towns across the US (two of the exec producers came from The Amazing Race) and use an allocated budget to help the hopeless in unique ways, to become America’s greatest philanthropist.

The contestants earned their place by filling out a comprehensive 11-page application. The Big O’s stamp is all over the form. From the subtle ‘What pets do you own or have you owned?’ to the blatant ‘How often do you watch The Oprah Winfrey Show?’ But my favourite question by far was ‘Excluding appearance and involvement with this show, what is the next meaningful milestone that you will be set to experience in your life?’ Check out the ten people who worked out how to answer that and fulfilled the need for great back story.

Like all reality constructs, there’s a catch phrase ‘Give big, or go home.’ The contestants’ efforts to do this are judged by a motley trio – Jamie Oliver is the nice guy, Malaak Compton-Rock who used to work for the UN is the woman who sits in the middle and football player Tony Gonzalez is the bad cop. Each episode ends with the worst giver or the least altruistic or the most selfish player being kicked out. The Big Give Big Twist is that the last man standing gets $1 million and they don’t know it.

The reviews have been mixed. The Hollywood Reporter called it ‘Shallow as a birdbath’ and even those who liked it are not sure about using altruism as competition.

The second episode aired last night and the audience slipped by 25%. It’s a pity, because if the ratings remained high there’d surely be an Aussie version and Oprah’s already found her Aussie host. Anyone for Jamie Durie’s Big Give? At least he’s used to chasing ratings by standing next to poverty-stricken subjects as they cry over their surprise gifts.

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