Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Are shows like Extreme Makeover or more recently Oprah's “Big Give” (both on ABC) really philanthropic or just ratings boosters and product placement vehicles? Over the years I have been wondering whether these free handouts are truly successful and who they actually benefit in the long run.

We are all told the American dream is all about owning a house with a little white picket fence. Perhaps these reality television make-overs appeal to us in that same dreamy sense. Wouldn’t we all just love for someone to recreate our homes for free? Or is this show popular because people think by watching from their own TV they too are somehow part of the volunteer and philanthropic movement?

On the ABC, Oprah’s Big Give website it states, “In eight one-hour episodes, a diverse, determined and competitive group of ten people are given the challenge of a lifetime — to change the lives of complete strangers in the most creative and dramatic ways.” I think Oprah is probably one of the most ‘activist’ celebrities on television today, but perhaps rather than using contestants, her producers should consider actually highlighting “real people” who are really living this work daily across the country.

Although bad-luck-gone-good might make for interesting television I often wondered how did the people on Extreme Makeover handle the renewed sense of home ownership in the long-term? The show has been on for a long time, but I’ve never seen a reunion show highlighting “where they are now” …like measure the outcome/investment of the work done and money that’s been spent.

What’s prompted me to write about this is that the Marrero family, in Camden, a recipient of an Extreme Makeover home built by JS Hovnanian and Sons in 2007 has now put their home on the market for sale at $499K according to an Asbury Park Press article. I thought a reaction to the story by someone on the APP website hit the proverbial nail-on-the-head. Is the family advised and consulted on how to pay for the house and the bills associated once the film crew leaves? This house was built in Camden. Or does a show like Extreme Makeover get involved or care about how the home may-or-may not fit into the city's urban renewal planning?

Apparently the land the home was built on is owned by Urban Promise, which curiously has a video piece from ABC’s 20/20 on children in Camden that takes you to an affiliated story on “Waiting on the World to Change”. The article goes on to talk about Camden being the most dangerous city in America to children.

So one has to scratch their head and ask, why when the family had lived in a cockroach infested brownstone prior, would Extreme Makeover build a huge house in Camden where there are nearly no comparable homes in that price range which is at the top of the market. And why is the family trying to sell the home less than a year later?

Is this really responsible philanthropy? In an article by Joshua Horwitz for the Chronicle of Philanthropy he explains eloquently, “Television offers a great opportunity to educate and to make people passionate about causes — especially when a philanthropist and television personality as popular as Oprah Winfrey is sponsoring the lessons.” I agree. But like everything else in the media, we really need to think about the messages we are taking in and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe a few inconsistent and ill-informed philanthropic messages are better than none. But I'm not sure. Perhaps it's just fertilizing the ground for telling the real stories about volunteerism and philanthropy.

What do you think?