BUENOS AIRES — The hottest game show on TV in Argentina right now isn't one where the winning contestant walks away a millionaire or with an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Caribbean. Rather, it's a measure of the economic duress here that the fantasy is simply getting a steady job.
At 7 o'clock each evening, Argentines now crowd around flickering sets to watch "Recursos Humanos" ("Human Resources").
In exchange for free publicity, prospective employers usually small businesses agree to hand over the job-selection process to a nationwide television audience. Callers choose between two qualified, prescreened contestants.
Unlike a real human-resources office, where the best-qualified candidate takes the job, the winner here is usually the one whose individual sob story captured through interviews with friends and relatives elicits the most tears.
Given Argentina's economic woes, in most cases it's a toss-up, as in the episode in which both candidates were 20-something fathers out of work for over a year.
"Today is the best day of my life," says 23-year-old Jose María Muñoz, who garnered 53 percent of the call-in votes and won that day's grand prize, a job making photocopies at a local kiosk. "Finally, I'll feel the dignity that comes with having a job."
The winner of each show gets a one-year contract with full benefits, a rare luxury in a country where more than half the labor market is off the books. The runner-up is given a free six-month medical plan for his or her family.
In a country where the unemployment rate has reached 23 percent, and where many think things will get worse before they get better, "Human Resources" is a small attempt to make the best of a bad situation.
"The program's aim is to put a human face on statistics that are too staggering for most people to comprehend," says the show's host, veteran journalist Nestor Ibarra.
Despite its noble aim, "Human Resources" remains a gameshow with all the bells and whistles one would expect. Unlike most job interviews in Argentina, where rejection comes quick and often, "Human Resources' " selection process is far more grueling. In addition to quizzes, contestants must reveal intimate details of their personal lives during confessional interviews replayed with mawkish Muzak and "slo-mo" special effects.
Candidates must also undergo an one-day, unpaid trial run at the job, where hidden cameras capture the person's ability to handle difficult "real-life" situations, such as when a pushy client insists on paying with fake pesos.
The show's cruel format has drawn flack from several commentators. "It's unemployment as soap opera," says Buenos Aires-based sociologist, Silvina Walger. "The melodrama of these peoples' lives is so striking and tragic that you can't turn away."
So far, the program has found work for 30 people and counting, and it is flush with potential candidates. "Our only fear getting started was that there wouldn't be enough companies willing to create jobs," says Mr. Ibarra.
A legitimate concern considering the tailspin Argentina's economy is in. In January, Argentina declared the world's largest debt default in history. The peso has dropped 70 percent against the dollar, and the economy is now on pace to contract 15 percent this year.
But as Argentina's economy implodes further, the show's popularity continues to surge. Since debuting April 15, "Human Resources," which airs weeknights from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., has ratings twice as high as the soap opera that used to occupy its timeslot.
"Compared to overwhelming trash on television these days, it's probably not such a bad alternative," says Ms. Walger. "I'd rather see people watching a real reality show than one with hot-bodied twenty-year-olds romping around a Pacific island getting drunk and having sex with each other."
But for those who have been contestants on the program, the benefits aren't always so clear-cut.
Leonardo Petinari and Fabian Lopez are each mechanics with several years of experience and vocational training under their belts. Both were out of work for over two years, and their families were on the edge of hunger before winning jobs at a Buenos Aires bus company, Cooperativa TAC, thanks to Human Resources.
"Around the garage we're known as the channel 13 boys," says Mr. Lopez. Despite finishing second to Mr. Petinari, Lopez was also hired by the bus company, a gesture that the show's producers highlight as evidence of the good they are doing.
Despite their new-found celebrity status and general satisfaction with the program, Lopez and Petinari say the reality of the current working environment is hardly the fantasy they imagined it would be.
Since starting their seven-day-a-week job about a month ago, both have already had their salaries cut by a third, to 450 pesos a month a decent salary when Argentina's peso was pegged one-to-one with the dollar, but since January's punishing devaluation it's worth just $128.
"I always used to say I'd do anything for a job, even spill my guts in front of a TV camera," says Petinari. "But if I knew the job was going to be worth so little, I'd probably never have submitted myself to such a rigorous and emotionally draining process."