The latest buzz in TV programming - generosity
Brand new Pontiac G6s for an entire audience, many of whom desperately need a car. A reality show that not only builds a family a new house, but mends the problems within, from weight loss to relationships. And in the Catskills of upstate New York, an entire town gets a makeover, giving a community "a new place to call home."Skip to next paragraph
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Television, it seems, is showing its softer side.
Tucked amid the back-stabbing and maggot-eating fests like "Survivor" or "Fear Factor" that are the staples of reality TV, comes a bevy of feel-good, life-improving shows determined to leave their targets - or at least appear to leave them - better than they found them.
The rise in Good Samaritan TV is, in part, a backlash against the skullduggery that has made its way into family living rooms in recent years. But it also plays into a powerful market desire for make-over in America. The country is fascinated with both the notion of reinvention and the philanthropic vehicle often used to get there - as was seen by the buzz generated when Oprah Winfrey handed out 276 sets of keys donated by General Motors, a gesture worth some $7 million.
Don't worry, though: Those who still want the manipulation and scheming of shows like "Big Brother" can certainly find it. They can watch participants humiliate themselves in any number of ways.
Indeed, reality TV came of age using a winner-takes-all model, says Toby Miller, director of the Film and Visual Culture program at the University of California in Riverside. Now it is trying to increase its staying power with a jolt of variety.
"This is, in a sense, a slight turn away from the harshness of that Darwinian world that you see exemplified in 'Survivor' or 'Dr. Phil,' toward something a little sweeter or nicer," he says.
Do-good TV, of course, is hardly revolutionary. Makeover shows and programs that lavish unexpected bounty on participants have been around since the beginning of television. In the 1950s, "It Could Be You" reunited audience members with long-lost relatives on air, while "Strike it Rich," the self-proclaimed "quiz show with a heart," took down-on-their luck contestants who, if unable to answer the questions, could call the "heart line" and get donations from viewers.
The format still has a market today. "Home Delivery," a new daytime offering from NBC Universal, bills itself as "part makeover, part talk show, and part reality with heart." Its four hosts travel the country, taking their cameras into peoples' homes and finding ways to "transform" their subjects' lives, usually with a showering of gifts: corrective surgery for a boy born without ears, or new uniforms and tickets to Broadway for a New Haven drill team.
For a new Fox show, "Renovate My Family," producers sought not only families in need of home repair but with serious challenges hindering their psychological progress, like obesity or addiction. And on Sony TV's "Moving In," self-help guru and former 76ers owner Pat Croce parks his Winnebago in peoples' driveway for a day, offering not gifts but advice - every life-affirming, 12-step trick he knows.