Charity by Proxy


New reality shows let us feel good by watching others do good.

When you think about all the exercise equipment, diet aids and thin, attractive people featured on television, it's amazing how many fat people there are walking around in real life. What's wrong with those people? Television is supposed to be a pretty powerful medium—actually, it's supposed to be the most powerful medium—so you'd think that they would get the message and stop it with the bread. But they don't: America keeps getting fatter while television keeps getting fitter.

Call it the "Thighmaster Paradox": Watching people do things on TV—fight it out on a desert island, say, or sweat themselves into shapelier thighs—often replaces the need to do those things ourselves. After a few hours vegetating in slack-jawed stupor in front of the Food Network, do we really end up in the kitchen, whipping up a wholesome meal? Or do we drag the family to Outback Steakhouse?

The Thighmaster Paradox, as it will come to be known, is never more apparent than when it comes to reality television. Right now one of the biggest reality shows is Dancing With the Stars, but its popularity hasn't ushered in a ballroom-dancing craze, if the past few weddings I've attended are any indication. And for all of the creepy, aggressive ambition on display in an episode of The Apprentice, do people really watch that show and suddenly get all fired up to outperform their co-workers? Or do they waste a lot of time the next day rehashing the previous night's episode and laughing around the water cooler, as the phone rings and the work piles up and the invoices don't get mailed?

There is reason to believe the Thighmaster Paradox will apply just as much to a new round of shows, in which we're supposed to watch nice people doing nice things. It started with ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in which a family—often parentless—struck hard by bad luck, weather, medical bills or something else suitably Dickensian, is suddenly beset by remodeling do-gooders who swarm around their house, fixing it up, upgrading the appliances, and showering the family with gifts and cash and the camera's attention. Basically it's the last scene in A Christmas Carol—but just the spray of food, stuff and good cheer, without all of the tiresome character development and fear of damnation. In the Extreme Makeover universe, Ebenezer Scrooge has been replaced by generous product-placement sponsors such as Home Depot and Sears, and the rest of us are blubbery Tiny Tims.

It's a hugely affecting show, of course. There's something riveting about watching people who deserve stuff get it, in abundance, and it's hard not to watch a whole hour of Extreme Makeover without getting a slightly lumpy throat.

Watching TV is so splendidly idle and so marvelously anesthetizing—ask any advertiser—that it's the wrong place to issue a call to action but a great place to issue a call to Domino's. Oprah has publicly declared that what she wants to do is inspire people to give more of their money and time, but that's a tough thing to accomplish.

Nascar's syndicated reality offering, Nascar Angels, doesn't bring on tears, but it's done in a similar spirit. Racing legend Rusty Wallace travels the country looking for people who really, really need to have their cars fixed. Sometimes it's a family in trouble with a family car in trouble, too. But at other times it's a person who needs a car to help others—a teacher, a nurse—creating a kind of two-fer situation: It's a charity reality show about helping a charitable person be more charitable. Though it lacks the sheer operatic scope of Extreme Makeover, Nascar Angels connects to an American bedrock truth: To do anything useful, you absolutely need a car.

All these shows, in fact, reinforce another bedrock truth, which we're all supposed to deny but we all secretly acknowledge: Money and objects really can make you happier.

It follows, then, that the happiest woman in the world must be Oprah Winfrey, who floats above the TV landscape like a benevolent sun shining her light on everyone below. Oprah—who once gave every member of her studio audience a new car—knows a thing or two about ostentatious generosity. Recently she presented her audience with $1,000 gift cards—and a mission to use the cards to help as many people as possible.

Now she is developing two primetime reality series for ABC. The first one, Oprah Winfrey's The Big Give, is a lightly competitive show in which contestants vie for the chance to do something really big for others. Sort of Survivor meets Touched by an Angel. In the second series, tentatively titled Your Money or Your Life, a family in trouble is swarmed with help—therapy help, decorator help, skin-care help, money help, you name it help—in a crash course of positive, do-gooder meddling that will result, it is hoped, in a happier, healthier family and a 22 share. It's sort of Dr. Phil meets Extreme Makeover, with a little bit of the Iraq surge mentality mixed in. When Oprah does something, she does it big.

Only a fool would bet against the success of these shows. Oprah did not get immensely rich by accident. She knows what people like to watch. More important, she knows what people like to feel when they watch. We want to feel good, about ourselves and our neighbors. We want to feel good about the power of a remodeled kitchen.

Mostly, though, we want to watch. Actual, real charity work—as opposed to actual, reality-television charity work—involves a certain amount of bleakness, the risk of an unhappy ending, an occasional lack of gratitude from the recipient, uncomfortable encounters with poor hygiene and a lot of guilt. In other words, a lot of things that would make for a really terrible television show.

Watching TV is so splendidly idle and so marvelously anesthetizing—ask any advertiser—that it's the wrong place to issue a call to action but a great place to issue a call to Domino's. Oprah has publicly declared that what she wants to do is inspire people to give more of their money and time, but that's a tough thing to accomplish. In order to pick up a hammer, you first have to put down the universal remote.


Rob Long. "Charity by Proxy." The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.


Rob Long is contributing editor for the National Review and Newsweek International. He was a co-executive producer of Cheers while still in his 20s and is the co-creator of a string of (cancelled) sitcoms: George & Leo, Men, Women & Dogs, etc. Rob is the author of Conversations With My Agent, the cult classic about real life in Hollywood, as well as its recently published sequel, Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

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