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Television's Long History of Humiliating Poor People

"The Briefcase" and "Britain's Hardest Grafter" enter the annals of Misery TV.

CBS Broadcasting

Even reality television has its limits, and the BBC—that vaunted public trust—may have found them last week, after advertising for contestants for “Britain’s Hardest Grafter.”  The five-part series, which is set to air on BBC2, will pit 25 underpaid young people against each other to win the equivalent of a year’s living wage—roughly £15,500—in a competition that the British press and angry viewers have already called “Hunger Games-style,” “degrading and exploitative,” and “poverty porn.” The show has contestants performing different kinds of blue-collar work to prove they’re the most productive grafter. (That’s British slang for “hard worker.”)

It’s an entertainment concept that’s difficult to defend (though BBC’s PR team is certainly trying, calling it a “serious social experiment” investigating “just how hard people in the low-wage economy work”). Asking poor people to “prove themselves” by laboring in a faux-factory is creepy and dystopian and, yes, kind of reminiscent of The Hunger Games or the bleak futuristic TV show “Black Mirror.” The production company’s description of the show—“At the end of each episode, those who have produced the least will be eliminated”—is both a perfect distillation of capitalism and a nightmarish vision of the future. Over 20,000 people have signed an online petition asking the BBC to scrap the show.

Yet I’m inclined to be a little charitable toward the BBC’s straightforward exploitation right now, if only because on this side of the pond the reality-TV industry has just presented American viewers with something far, far worse. 

That would be “The Briefcase,” which began its six-episode run on CBS last Wednesday as the most-watched series of the night. Created by the venal mind behind NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” the would-be inspirational show offers struggling families the opportunity to change their lives—only to manipulate them into feeling guilty about it. In each episode, producers arrive at the home of two couples in the lower-middle class, who think they have signed up to appear in a documentary about money, with a briefcase containing $101,000. “Oh my god, smell it,” one woman says to her husband, pressing the cash against her forehead. Only after they’ve had the chance to imagine what they can do with this windfall—cover medical bills, pay for IVF treatment, repay loans—they hear the catch: They have 72 hours to decide whether to keep all the money, keep part of the money, or give it all away to another family that’s just as needy. There is a lot of crying.

Of course, we viewers at home know that the other family also got the money, and they’re acting out a financial version of the prisoners’ dilemma. And so we watch the couples’ second-guess themselves, judge their own worthiness, accuse their spouses of greed. “Are we awful people?” “Are you going to resent me?” “Do you think that’s fair, to take more than half?” After visiting the other family’s house and learning that her counterpart is a veteran with a prosthetic leg, one participant pulls over the car to vomit onto the side of the road. “I don’t want this decision,” she grimly tells the camera.

There is a long history in American game shows of exploiting the economically precarious for crass entertainment. Among the earliest and most popular was “Queen for a Day,” which ran for 19 years after its 1945 debut, first on radio and then national television; in each episode, four working-class women would explain their misfortunes to an audience, and tell the patronizing emcee what gift would relieve their misery. The mother of baby triplets wants diaper service; the mother of a son with cerebral palsy wants medical equipment; the widowed mother of two dead sons wants a vacation. The winner was decided by audience applause and wrapped in a velvet robe. The losers were sent home with a toaster or a package of nylons. 

A winner is crowned in a 1960 episode of "Queen for a Day."

After “Queen For a Day” went off the air in 1964, its own producer called it the "the worst program in TV history." It was also the most popular thing on daytime TV for about a decade. (“Sure, ‘Queen’ was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That’s why it was so successful: it was exactly what the public wanted,” that same producer, Howard Blake, wrote.) 

But “Queen for a Day” was only the most popular in a genre that became known as “sob shows” or “misery shows,” where the viewers lapped up contestants’ tales of woe. “Queen” may have been the most hated, but the most controversial was “Strike It Rich,” which quizzed needy contestants in a competition to win up to $800 dollars. As the show’s participants described their economic struggles onscreen, sympathetic home viewers could call in to offer their own money, goods, and services.

For many, there was something unseemly about this queasy mix of charity and entertainment. In 1954, New York City’s commissioner of welfare investigated “Strike It Rich,” arguing that the program needed a license from the city’s Welfare Department to solicit money from viewers. The resulting column from The New York Times’ television critic Jack Gould—headlined “TV’s Misery Shows: Exploitation of Unhappiness and Want Should Be Dropped from the Air”—hits all the now-familiar notes about reality TV culture and dignity and ratings. But the city’s welfare commissioner adds another complaint, one that only could make sense in a society with a functioning safety net: that these shows erroneously "create the impression that destitute people in the United States have no place to go.”

That’s the most uneasy part of watching the “The Briefcase”—knowing that in 2015 these precarious members of the shrinking middle class don’t have any place to go. The working-class women who went on “Queen for a Day” in the ’50s were told that consumer goods could make them happy, and in a post–New Deal America that was easy to buy. A washing machine could give a woman a livelihood. Stuff was a solution, at least partly. But the families in “The Briefcase” already have washing machines and full kitchens and neatly trimmed lawns. What they don’t have is medical insurance, or maternity leave.

And throughout, the producers provide them with evidence that maybe they don’t deserve those things, at least not as much as other needy families. Don’t be greedy. Don’t take more than you’re entitled to. “The value of what’s in the briefcase might not be the money,” each episode’s intro tells us. “The Briefcase” turns the economic insecurity of real people into currency, then tries to send the message that money doesn’t matter as much as a generous spirit. It’s enough to make anyone nostalgic for “Queen for a Day”'s commercialized spectacle.