Friday, September 9, 2005

Three wishes on NBC

On the airplane back from New York today, United had an “exclusive” preview of NBC’s Three Wishes show. It debuts in two weeks, and all I have to say is that the tissue industrial complex is sneaky. I mean, they had their own cable channel (Lifetime), but that apparently wasn’t enough. Now they’ve gone network, and man, this show does everything but chop onions in your face to make you cry.

The premise is that country music star Amy Grant, accompanied by two dudes and some other girl show up in a small town, troll for the most heart-wrenching made-for-TV sob stories, then set about filming how great they are by granting the three wishes. The first episode (and I swear to you, I’m not making any of this up):

  • they find a young girl who was in a car with her father when their car was struck by another vehicle, and, Amy Grant patiently explains, “the bumper of the other car hit her face”. She’s missing parts of her skull, she wears a helmet to protect her brain, and she can no longer participate in the sports that she excelled in prior to the crash (gymnastics, softball, swimming). As if that weren’t enough, we learn that Mom, a 911 operator, was actually the one who took the call about the accident and had to be told while on duty that they were airlifting her possibly dying daughter to a hospital.

  • they find a young boy, who loves, loves loves his step-father. This boy lost his father at age 6, and the deputy sheriff in town stepped in and “saved our family”. The boy’s wish? Get adopted by his step-father. (More syrupy sweet goodness: Sheriff sold his coveted Ford truck to help the family make ends meet.)

  • finally, they found a group of cheerleaders (yay! cheerleaders! in uniform!) who wanted to get a new field for their football team. Apparently their field is so bad it’s basically a mud pit, and players are getting injured in the mud. But there’s more (no, really): their cheerleading coach is dying of acute leukemia, and though she can’t come to town to make the plea in person, the girls assure us that their coach really wants this field for the boys. (Sure enough, footage of the coach on her hospital bed confirms this.)

What transpires is an hour of NBC lavishing more money on this town than they know what to do with: they get Ford to give the Sheriff a new F-350. The SF Giants not only give Sheriff and family tickets to a Giants game, they get him on the field to throw out the first pitch. Not only does NBC foot the bill for a trip to Sacramento to get the girl to see specialists about reconstructive skull surgery, they build her a playhouse (complete with a donated “never ending pool” and a plasma TV). Then they put on a carnival (complete with Amy Grant belting out a few tunes) in which the town is asked to chip in money to cover all of her medical bills, but apparently the town comes up short because NBC kicks in the balance. And they get the boy adopted by his Dad. And they get a high-end astro-turf company to donate a $1m+ field to the school. In all, I’d guess the total value of everything donated on this one show alone amounted to $1.5m, maybe more. The tax implications are very real, and I wonder how these needy families (and/or towns) can afford to accept such largesse?

If this all makes me sound terribly cynical, maybe I am. But while I applaud anyone who seeks to do good (and Grant’s heart sure seems in the right place), the show itself was so saccharine, so cloying, so manipulative in its tear-jerking moments (all 178 of them) that it made it exceedingly hard to watch. I’m sure I’m not the target demographic, but still.

On a more serious note, I wonder if this vicarious philanthropy, in which viewers can watch needy individuals get showered with assistance, encourages people to give or (more likely, I’m afraid), makes it easier to feel like they don’t need to chip in.


  1. That home re-do show on ABC (it's on right before MNF I think) gets huge raitings and even had a 'how do they do that spin-off'. Since it is successful it is being copied.

    Now if they could merge that concept with Law and Order. Something like
    Law and Order:Sob Story
    Law and Order:Tax Code

    Then you might have something.

  2. A new programming format has [d]evolved from Reality TV. That of "do good voyerism." It started with ABC's Extreme Makeover which this week was in the news over a lawsuit launched by one of its intended makeover recipients who alleges that her friends and family were "pressured into making dispairaging comments" about the plaintiff's looks. Then the more successful spin-off "Home Makeover" and thanks to the sustained ratings of that show, now NBC has entered the fray with 3 Wishes.

    The success of these shows is notable for two reasons: First because it satiates a combination of viewer desires. To say "at least my life isn't that bad" (all the while relating to some part of their story) and then living vicariously through the climax of the show when they get their dream house/makeover/whatever.

    Second, it speaks to a more alarming and depressing trend in philanthropy: I call it "staged philanthropy" It started with telethons and has now evolved into a benefit show/concert/product for every cause. Notionally, I find them almost all crass HOWEVER, they work and now work more effectively than most other fundraising efforts.

    It's only a matter of time before a "live intermission" is interstialed into these types of shows which appeals to the viewers for donations directly in support of the people they're watching.