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  REALITY TV AS BLOODSPORT: "SURVIVOR" DUTCH STYLE PLAYED FOR A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT
 

By C. Antonio Romero

New York, 31 May 2007— Today's news from Holland that television network BNN will be featuring a special program in which viewers call in to vote on which of three contestants receive a donated kidney from a terminally ill woman brings the bite of the real to the reality TV medium in an unprecedented way.

The show is the latest creation of Dutch company Endemol, which created Big Brother in 1999. The producers claim to be doing this to draw attention to the need for kidney donations, after the death of Bart de Graaff , their former director who died on a transplant recipient waiting list. And they have certainly provoked discussion across worldwide media and in the blogosphere.

Various critics are bound to rage over a host of questions: the ethics of letting the donor choose the recipient; efffectively making the donors beg for their lives; letting the audience at home and the donor decide, quite literally, who lives and, potentially, who dies. (My question: what's in it for the donor? Is she or her estate being paid to turn suffering into spectacle?)

Setting aside the obvious glib quip linking this whole spectacle to reality-tv staple Survivor, It's easy to find signs of numerous memes of our moment tied to this grisly project: the implosion of irony (where "mock-reality" and life-and-death collapse into each other); the commodification of human body parts (present in everything from stem cell-based therapies to allegations that the Chinese harvest organs to order from freshly-executed prisoners ); participatory mass media (in adding the dial-in voting aspect to the program)...

I, however, think more of the canniness of this project as a piece of buzz-generating media. Without even running the program (which for all we know may not come off, because of the controversy involved) the media has been provoked into discussing and re-discussing the issues around the issue of the scarcity of human organs. And Web searchers will dig, dig, dig for content on this topic for as long as it's hot and forward it to their friends, link to it and so on, which will sustain the buzz that much longer.

In this, at least, this worthy question is no different from many other hot topics that come and go on the Web, such as the sensation over the Paris Hilton autopsy sculpture and others by sculptor Daniel Edwards .

But if that provocation is the point, perhaps they would do just as well to simply issue hoax press releases about such a program, without depending upon the real effect upon four real human lives to lend their effort its extra organic charge. 

There are other ways to achieve such theatrical effects: deadpan hoaxing, for example, can work as socially effective satire. The Yes Men, for example, are masters of this, having punk'd elite audiences like BBC News (where one passed himself off as a Dow Chemical spokesman taking responsibility for the Bhopal disaster), a global warming conference (where as Halliburton representatives they pitched the "SurvivaBall" to shield middle-managers from newly harsh environments), and the Wharton School (where they floated reintroducing enlightened slavery to Africa).

Perhaps, though, the audience for that game is too rareified, too narrow. Without the accompanying image, and without the promise of the unveiling of the sculptures, would Daniel Edwards have drawn the buzz he has for his celebrity sculptures? Some people need their reality more real, in an age where irony has withdrawn from most people's lives. And what can be more real than reality TV as bloodsport (perhaps with a dash of Home Shopping Network thrown in?)

 



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