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Reality Philanthropy TV

By Tom Watson on November 14, 2007No Comment

Reality Philanthropy TV by Kate Golden

Pop culture and philanthropy have been courting each other for a while now, so it is perhaps inevitable that the two should meet in primetime.  

In April, the wildly successful American Idol devoted a star-studded night to raising funds and awareness for charities here and abroad.  Heartbreaking images from Africa were broadcast alongside celebrity pleas for donations and performances by past Idol winners.  Over the course of Idol Gives Back, more than $75 million was raised to support children and young people in poverty in the U.S. and Africa. 

If anything is more popular than American Idol, it may well be Oprah Winfrey.  The Oprah Winfrey Show- produced by her own production company, Harpo Productions, Inc. – is seen by an estimated 46 million viewers a week, and has remained the country’s number one talk show for over two decades.  Her book club recommendations consistently propel titles to the top of best-seller lists; indeed, publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.  Her magazine has a circulation of 2.3 million readers.  And her next big project is, like American Idol, a contest in which each week one participant is eliminated.  It seems a recipe for likely success. 

The twist?  The contest is a philanthropic one.  Oprah’s Big Give – her first foray into regular primetime programming- will focus on ten individuals and their ability to increase a given amount of money and resources before giving them away to help others.  Slated to air in early 2008 on ABC, the show aims to inspire people to do good. 

The show “will center on the competition, drama and emotion as millions of dollars are given away to make a difference in people’s lives across the country.”  And, because every good reality show has some star power, Oprah’s Big Give promises some high wattage exposure:  Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are auctioneers in one of the episodes. 

Reality programming is not all competition and contests, of course.  It is also the documenting of actual events and regular people. 

In September, CNN launched a year-long project, following six young men and women volunteers attempting to make the world a better place.  Be The Change provides viewers with the opportunity to experience the participants’ work in countries from Tanzania to Cambodia.  Blogging and posting videos, their challenges and successes will be aired in video diary form on CNN International, and in regular updates to the project’s interactive website.   Tackling environmental problems in India, replacing a dilapidated sports facility in South Africa, or providing eye care to the under-served, these individuals hope to effect change and raise awareness by partnering with organizations on the ground in each of the six countries where they will spend the year.  

CNN International can be seen in more than 200 million households and hotel rooms in over 200 countries and territories worldwide.  The potential for the project to reach new audiences- especially in countries where philanthropy has not fully entered the mainstream – and encourage them to volunteer their own time and money is huge. 

If reality television is indeed here to stay, its evolution into philanthropic programming is, for this viewer, a welcome one.

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