Reader Note – This post was in process for a little while. I have resurrected it in an effort to clear my desk and to get on with new material.
In this episode, “secret millionaire” Dani Johnson returns to the streets and is assigned the task of giving back to a community and volunteer organizations that desperately need money and help. Johnson is an interesting subject, as she went from poverty to millionaire with her motivational speaking tours, all of which allowed her to achieve the wealth and happiness that the episode initially presents her with.
The show follows the trend of what Laurie Ouelette calls “Do good TV”, which is basically a show that makes money by showing a bunch of extremely down on their luck folks and giving them stuff while making us cry.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition seems to be the exemplar here, but the economic downturn has resulted in a proliferation of these shows, including Undercover Boss, Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, School Pride, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, The Biggest Loser and now Secret Millionaire.
According to Ouelette, what is interesting about these shows is that they actually end up servicing the means of the capitalist system, favoring the rich rather than the poor saps who receive their charity. In her words, “Do Good TV” classifies
“deserving” individuals and redistributing the surplus of informational capitalism in a manner of its own choosing, TV also drew from an arrogant philanthropic logic that can be traced to Robber Baron industrialists. The difference is that TV has fused charity work with the rationality of the market, so that there’s no distinction between public service and cultural product.
What is so interesting about these shows is just how fine the line between helping people and crass commercialism is. Not only do these shows presumably help those in need, but they furnish them with the finest new products from their various sponsors.
This is exactly the subject matter of Erin Copple Smith’s recent post on Antenna: Egregious Product Placement: The Biggest Loser. What is interesting to me is just how seamless the integration of these moments are to the narrative, and how they actually go so far as to freeze the show’s narrative for a moment.
The phenomenon is really taken to the next level with Undercover Boss, which basically fuses this philanthropic capitalist model, with a full-length ad for a businesses “ethical” practices.
While there is always a certain satisfaction in watching how often the CEOs of these companies are fired, and certainly an emotional reward in seeing workers rewarded for their labours, the relationship between the cheapness of these shows and the revenue they generate is really what I take issue with.
In almost every case, the sheer amount of advertising in Reality TV generally significantly undermines any positive emotional reward of viewing, or emoting towards the subjects of these shows.
None of which is to say that these shows aren’t affecting, that they don’t serve some sort of function to spread awareness about people who work hard, they certainly do their job on my wife and I, who are presumably people with hearts who are definitely hooked in by the shows and their subjects.
The problem is that none consider the larger systemic issues of poverty and low wages, and ultimately end up exploiting their subjects.
Which brings me back to my original sticking point – that Secret Millionaire is extremely cheap. Instead of offering a real model of philanthropy (the millions implied in the title) the show basically gives away $50,000 total to several worthy causes. To me this seems like an unfair exchange for the many tears that accompany very sad lives that are burdened by poverty, rising health care costs and a total systemic breakdown of the social safety net.