The Most Offensive New Trend In Reality TV: “Poverty Porn"

Photo: Courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment.
The Hunger Games — the televised sporting event that forces children to fight to the death for the amusement of the elite in Panem — are not real. It seemed necessary to put that out there, in light of two new game shows premiering in the United States, and England. One, Britain's Hardest Grafter, is garnering more comparisons to The Hunger Games than the other (The Briefcase). Still, the concepts behind both shows have echoes of the central conflict of Suzanne Collins' dystopian series. Specifically, the exploitation of the poor at the hands of — and for the amusement of — the rich.

According to The Guardian, Britain's Hardest Grafter "is seeking 25 of Britain’s poorest workers, with applications limited to those who earn or receive benefits totaling less than £15,500 ($23,700) a year. The five-part BBC2 series will pit contestants against each other in a series of jobs and tasks with the 'least effective workers' asked to leave until one is crowned champion. The winner will receive a cash prize of about £15,500, the minimum annual wage for workers outside London."

Although Britain's Hardest Grafter has yet to air, it's making headlines in the casting phase alone after the website Graduate Fog published a flyer looking for applicants.The show's production company, Twenty Twenty, reached out to Graduate Fog, which was also the first outlet to make the Hunger Games comparison, in the interest of attracting "graduates who are struggling to secure a decent living wage."

After outlets like The Independent accused the show of capitalizing on the growing trend of "poverty porn," a Change.org petition to "Stop the BBC's Hunger Games Style Show" garnered almost 15,000 signatures. "Unemployment and poverty are serious social issues and should not be the subject of a cheap game show format, designed to exploit some of the most impoverished in our society for the purposes of dubious 'entertainment,'" it reads.

In response to the online outcry, the BBC and Twenty Twenty shared this joint statement with Refinery29: "Britain’s Hardest Grafter is a current affairs commission and not an entertainment format...The welfare of those taking part is of paramount importance and it is a misinterpretation of the concept of the series to suggest it is exploitative...When people see the final product, we’re confident they’ll feel the subject was dealt with sensitively."

That's also the stance CBS is taking on its newest reality series, The Briefcase. According to the show's website, it "features hard-working American families experiencing financial setbacks who are presented with a briefcase containing a large sum of money and a potentially life-altering decision: they can keep all of the money for themselves, or give all or part of it to another family in need."

Of course, it's not that simple or beatific. What really happens is that two lower-middle class families are presented with a briefcase containing $101,000. They get to keep $1,000, and then they have to decide to do one of three things with the remaining $100,000: They can keep it, give some of it to another family in need, or give all of it to the other needy family. Throughout the process, they learn more about the various hardships the other family is facing, making the already hard-up family seem like monsters for even considering keeping any of the money.

Oh, and what they don't know is that the other family is weighing the exact same decision. So, if they DO decide to keep all of the money, and the other family is a bunch of modern-day Mother Teresas, the family would end up with $201,000, which is probably just enough money to make them feel sick for a lifetime.

CBS probably thinks the show highlights the generosity of the human spirit, especially given that in the first episode, both families ceded all of the money, meaning that they both walked away with briefcases containing $100K in a wonderfully magnanimous trade. Unfortunately, the network is completely glossing over what happened before that decision was made. The couples visited each other's houses and pored over things like unpaid bills — the issue of health insurance came up time and time again — and areas of disrepair.

It wasn't a lesson in reciprocity, it was watching two couples — both of whom definitely could have used the money in the briefcase — examine complete strangers' lives to assess if their financial need was greater than their own. The entire series of events had been orchestrated by producers, for whom the money in the briefcase was just a line item on the show's budget sheet. There's a better way to discuss what it means to be struggling to make ends meet, and it shouldn't involve pitting families with financial hardships against one another.

That's the main issue with these "poverty porn" shows. While the networks and production companies behind them think they're shining a light on economic disparity and hardship, they're doing so by pitting people who live near or below the poverty line against one another, all for a television show that most viewers will watch with a feeling of "Whew; I'm glad that isn't my life!"

That's exactly what happened in The Hunger Games, too. I realize no one's forcing children to kill one another here, but when there's money and desperation involved, it's amazing what human beings are capable of — and what others are content to watch on television, from the comfort of their financially secure lives, without taking any action at all.


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