Mal Fletcher
Big Donor -- Public Service Or Just Bad Taste?

You've got to be in it to win it. Today's prize: a human kidney.

It sounds like the opening line from a tasteless comedy sketch. In fact, it could be the introduction to a new reality TV programme called The Big Donor Show which goes to air in the Netherlands this week, despite protests from political parties and other prominent groups.

Produced by Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, the concept of the show takes the so-called reality genre to new depths of tastelessness.

Three contestants will compete in front of a prime-time audience for a life-saving kidney operation.

A terminally ill cancer patient, aged 37, has agreed to donate a healthy kidney. She has said that her decision to take part in the programme was based on a desire to avoid the anonymity normally associate with organ donation. She wants to meet the recipient of her kidney.

The producers defend the new programme saying that the contestants are being given a much higher chance of receiving a kidney than they would have if they went through normal health service channels.

Opponents point out that the programme turns organ donation from a matter of serious medicine into a contest, or worse a circus.

The Times newspaper called the programme a sort of ‘Organ Idol’. ‘It turns an act of generosity,' said the paper, 'into an uncomfortable lunge for Z-list celebrity.’

There’s no doubt that shows created in the Big Brother mould provide a form of entertainment for a great many people – their ratings are consistently high. However, we've recently seen the dangers of treating people as circus animals on TV, in the way that these shows often do.

First of all, there was the infamous Shelpa Shetty incident on Big Brother. The Bollywood actress was subjected to racist taunts by a number of her fellow housemates, causing a furore in the UK and throughout Asia.

In the official enquiry that followed, the broadcaster Channel 4 was found to have breached the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

The code sets out to ensure that if a broadcaster sets out to show potentially offensive material, it does so in a way that protects the viewer. Singled out for special mention was the fact that children had been exposed to racism via an early morning repeat of the show.

Meanwhile, Australia's Big Brother was recently criticised for deciding not to tell a contestant that her father had died. Millions of viewers were aware of her family’s tragedy before she was, as she was allowed no contact with the outside world.

All the publicity surrounding these events simply boosts interest in them, especially among the young, who are Endemol’s target audience.

Now it’s Big Donor’s time in the spotlight.

Nobody would begrudge a fellow human being the opportunity to receive life-enriching or life-saving treatment. However, there are boundaries we should not cross, both in terms of good taste and ethics.

The producers of this programme are demonstrating a remarkable lack of empathy for those in need of organ transplants.

Turning patients into contestants who must convince an audience that they deserve a transplant trivialises their plight and makes a serious medical issue seem trite.

Supporters sometimes claim that shows of this kind actually serve a public education remit, demonstrating how human beings react under specific pressures.

In fact, they all too often demean human beings, exploiting people who have real emotional or psychological needs, for the titillation of the audience.

There’s only one motive for putting shows like Big Donor to air and that is financial.

We may dismiss programmes like Big Donor or Big Brother as low-brow tripe, but we shouldn’t underestimate their ability to help shape mores and values, especially among the young.

Yes, they are made for entertainment, not education. But studies the world over have demonstrated the power of entertainment to educate – either directly or by osmosis and association.

In the case of Big Donor, what are Endemol saying to the young about the dignity of human life and the respect we should show to those who are suffering? With Big Brother, what are they saying about problem resolution and the service of others?

The reality TV genre thrives on the oxygen of shock-publicity. The problem with shocks is that to be effective they must become more shocking overtime. One generation’s ‘extreme’ is often the next generation’s ‘mundane’. After Big Donor, what’s next?

What will the next generation of Big Brother look like? Who’s to say that someday we might not find entertainment value in turning the cameras on people who haven’t consented to being filmed?

At the end of the day all the protests and comment pieces like this one will make little or no real difference. People like me are not the ones who watch reality TV anyway. The only way to bring change will be for those who would otherwise have watched to switch off -- not just this particular programme, but other shows made along the same lines.

Here’s my challenge to all the Big Brother fans out there. What kind of world do you want to live in ten years from now?

What kind of media do you want pumping values into the next generation – say, your own kids? What will you do now to set that in motion?

Part of my own work involves TV production. I am very much aware that media is a business like any other, working largely on the principles of supply and demand.

When it comes to the seedier end of the reality genre, why not switch off, stifling the demand, and see if it changes what the producers supply?

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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