Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cashing in on poverty

Filed Under: Poverty, Entertainment (general), Television, child abuse, Crime

CAN WE really believe, as we are made to believe, that the live TV shows that draw in the poor and feature the poor for entertainment purposes in exchange for easy money were conceived with altruistic motives and not for huge profits?

In the wake of the recent furor over the “Willing Willie” TV show that featured what looked like a discombobulated six-year-old boy gyrating like a macho dancer and other similar display of abilities (by toothless senior citizens, for example) in exchange for monetary rewards, poverty is always invoked as the reason why.

Today, live shows featuring kids are not anything like the highly rated “Kids Say the Darndest Things” of yesteryears.

Poverty is supposed to be the reason shows like “Willing Willie” on TV5 and its predecessor “Wowowee” on ABS-CBN’s Channel 2 (before the debacle that caused host Willie Revillame to leave and move to TV5) exist. Poverty is the reason legions of poor people aspire to participate in game shows and entertain the audience with all sorts of antics that no one in his or her right mind would want their bedraggled or aging parents to do on television.

Poverty or profit?

Poverty is what Revillame invoked when he justified the format of his show. You, he lashed out at his critics, what have you done for the poor? Oh, the many things he had done for the poor, the multi-millionaire show host said, and his legion of fans that stand by him is proof of this. What indignities are his critics talking about, his supporters ask, what oppression, what human rights violations? The poor, they say, love the show. They dream to participate and go home with oodles of money—for a song, a dance, a “wrong mistake” that sends the audience laughing at their expense.

Right after the 2006 “Wowowee” anniversary stampede that killed more than 70 people, Revillame was quoted as saying, “Gusto lang naming sila mapasaya.” (All we wanted was to make them happy.) And so the poor innocents who were there for the thrill met their tragic end.

“I saw something very wrong, very, very wrong,” Chief Supt. Querol said then, his voice almost cracking, after he saw people stepping over the dead and clamoring for raffle tickets.

Watching the fact-finding investigation at that time, I couldn’t help noting that the line of questioning focused mainly on where, when and how the tragedy happened, the security lapses, the physical layout of the place, the numbers. It was all about crowd control. No one asked about the essence of the “Wowowee” show, its purpose, sponsors, audience. Did the show producers even remotely realize that the show was playing Pied Pier and might be leading innocents to a tragic end? For the investigators it seemed enough that they knew that it was some kind of daily game show that raffled off huge prizes in cash and in kind.

I had hoped then that if a Senate hearing was going to be conducted “in aid of legislation,” the parties concerned would look into the nature of TV shows. Not to curtail media freedom, but so that the interest of viewers and the participating public would be protected. Not just from physical dangers but from the non-physical too.

Were lessons learned?

For TV networks it continues to be a ratings game, a crowd-drawing game, with the crowd size, queue length and shrieking decibel used as gauge of a live show’s popularity, the better for advertisers to notice. And who would compose the crowd if not the masa? They who have simple dreams and simple joys, they who seek momentary relief from life’s travails, they who are so easy to reward and satisfy.

But in the case of both that 2006 stampede and now—of the boy macho dancer, that is—must poverty always be the scapegoat? Must poverty be always invoked to explain tragedies, justify indignities and crimes (like drug trafficking that recently sent three Filipino drug mules to the death chamber). It’s as if the poor have nothing else except their hunger and their need for money. To underestimate the poor is to sin against the poor. To make huge sums of money on the poor while making them salivate for it—in the name of entertainment—is to gravely sin against the poor.

I happened to catch the latter portion of Revillame’s soliloquy last Friday and his announcement that his show would be off the air for some time. He ranted against his critics, those in show biz especially. But he did welcome constructive suggestions.

Then he should listen! If only he would read through what have been written and said, no matter how painful and insulting these sound to him, he might find some sensible nuggets.

To show producers who claim to be so eager to help the poor: Why don’t you just hand over the money, why subject the participants to something that diminishes their dignity? Or why not reward the poor’s little known heroic feats in their communities and set them up as models? This way more poor people would emulate the good stuff instead of just pinning their hopes on shows that distribute money.

Revillame asks: Why target him only? Yeah, what about other live shows that make kids do erotic movements, kids who are treated like elephants in a circus?

Last Monday I was having my car registered and waiting for the LTO lunch break to be over when I saw from the corner of my eye, a TV noon show that featured young women clad in the skimpiest bikinis gyrating and grinding in a crowded urban alley.

I thought, what woman in her right senses, no matter how poor, would want to cavort almost naked on a crowded street, under the noonday sun? And why are advertisers supporting this? Can’t they help women earn in a more decent way? Why seek to degrade and diminish?

Again, poverty?

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Copyright 2011