Outrage Watch: Is CBS’s ‘The Briefcase’ ‘altruism porn’?

Controversy around CBS's new reality series “The Briefcase” has been brewing for awhile (see Andy Dehnart's take here), but now a petition is circulating that charges the show with catering in “altruism porn.” The premise? Financially struggling American families are presented with a briefcase containing $101,000 before being given the choice: keep it all for themselves or share the wealth with another family in similarly dire circumstances. How does this strike you?

“This show is cruel and exploits the suffering of real families,” reads the petition posted to Care2 and authored by a user named Ashley Neumeister. “Consider that CBS' CEO [Les Moonves] makes $54 million a year. If CBS really wants to spotlight the hardships of America's poor, it should donate outright, not exploit their suffering.”

As of this writing, the petition has garnered 14,199 signatures toward a goal of 15,000 and has been shared 231 times on Facebook.

The term “altruism porn,” in case you were wondering, seems to have originated (at least in this case) in a review by Vulture TV writer Margaret Lyons, who wrote of the series:

“…there's something really perverse about Les Moonves earning money based on the emotional and financial anguish of poor people, by making a game-theory spectacle of human suffering that he could end, himself, personally, if he wanted to. The people on 'The Briefcase' are agonizing over $101,000 – a shitload of money to most of us. But not to Les Moonves. That's less than 0.2 percent of his income: $101,000 is to Les Moonves what $97 is to a person earning $52,000 per year.”

Over at The Huffington Post, Jason Stanford placed the controversy in a historical context:

“The drama of watching poor people slug it out for cash prizes might be new to television but it's been around for years. During the Great Depression, people also enjoyed watching their fellow struggling citizens entertain them by competing in dance marathons, six-day bicycle races, and flagpole sitting contests. The contestants won by enduring misery, but then didn't everyone back then?

“This was also about the time that escapist stories enjoyed a heyday, notably 'Little Orphan Annie,' a comic strip that spawned a radio show and two film adaptations during the 1930s. And really, what is 'The Briefcase' but a combination of the humiliation of publicly enduring pain for the promise of being rescued from financial ruin?”

Miami Herald writer Leonard Pitts Jr., meanwhile, decried the show's popularity following its first highly-rated airing:

“…'The Briefcase' plumbs new depths. CBS has made a calculated bet here that you and I would not mind seeing real-life poverty as mass entertainment. So far, they”re right. According to Variety, The Briefcase was the most watched Wednesday-night series on television last week. Almost 7 million of us tuned in to find diversion in the exploitation of financially and emotionally vulnerable people.

“It is particularly, well…rich that this comes from CBS. In 2002, you may recall, that network proposed to take a poor and unsophisticated rural family and plunk them down in a Beverly Hills mansion for America”s amusement. There was an outcry and CBS was shamed out of airing 'The Real Beverly Hillbillies.' But apparently, that was a Pyrrhic victory. Thirteen years later, here comes The Briefcase. Thirteen years later, in a country where 'the poors' are called 'takers,' 'moochers' and scavenging animals, that same network now uses them to fill the space between commercials for soft drinks and erectile-dysfunction pills.”

Series creator and executive producer David Broome, for his part, has lamented the way the show, in his words, has been “mischaracterized” in the media:

“Don”t tell me this is taking poverty-stricken people and pitting them against each other,” Broome ranted to the New York Post. “I don”t want the media portraying it like that. We”re taking two typical middle-class families – that”s the starting point for us … and to see headlines about ‘poverty-stricken people being pitted against each other” … that”s horrifically sad and misleading to the real poverty-stricken people in this country.”

Not that he's biased.