Have you been watching any of these so-called “Poverty Porn” programs? The Briefcase (Wednesdays on CBS and Global) and Britain’s Hardest Grafter are two recent examples. In both shows, “people in need” are given money to appear on TV shows. In The Briefcase, a family is given $101,000 and 72-hours to decide how to split it with another clan in need. Sadly, there are no lack of contestants. In Britain’s Hardest Worker, slacker contestants are weeded out until on hard worker wins a cash prize.
Reporter Alexandra Sagan from CBC.ca called to ask my opinion on these “oppression Olympics.” You can read her full report here.
I suggested that the trend is hardly new. Way back in the late ’50s/early ’60s, there was a daytime show called Queen for a Day. It was black & white and I have the vaguest memory of it. Host Jack Bailey, who, with his thin little mustache looked like a seedy version of Walt Disney, would interview housewives and the studio audience would vote on who had the saddest story. The “winner” would be named “Queen for a Day” and would be given a crown and a scepter and several appliances courtesy of that week’s sponsors.
My parents, as I barely recall, didn’t look down on the contestants back then, they just thought those people were lucky. Even getting on TV at all was considered something of a prize.
Queen For a Day dates even further back to radio, where it launched in 1945. There was even a “behind the scenes” feature film featuring Bailey.
A much darker series that tried to “help” people in need was The Swan. The 2004 Fox effort gathered women judged to be ugly and through plastic surgery and makeovers carved them up into model wannabees. Each week, in a pageant setting, one woman would be eliminated as still not pretty enough. The winner got a hundred grand and a gym membership.
In case Canadians feel smug about this, former CBC Sports head Arthur Smith was one of the creators of this series. A British comedian renamed it, “The Bullies were Right.” It remains the most vile, degrading thing I’ve ever seen on TV.