Viewers are lashing out against CBS’ new reality series The Briefcase, and for good reason.
The Briefcase is everything that is wrong with reality TV wrapped up in one awful show. Each week, the series features two families facing extreme financial hardships and gives them each a briefcase full of $100,000 dollars. They then have to decide whether to keep the money they desperately need to keep their family going, give part of the money to the other family or to be CBS’ version of selfless and give it all away. Neither family knows about the other’s briefcase, making their decision all the more wrenching. In other words, entertainment comes from watching two families living well below the poverty line having to decide whether to help their own family or someone else’s. Horrified? I am, and so are many viewers.
Sadly, The Briefcase came out of the gate strong ratings-wise, pulling in over 6 million viewers for its first episode. Not everyone is charmed by the so-called heartwarming reality TV that exploits hardworking people on national television. Elizabeth Caton-Phelps of Everett, Washington, has spearheaded a petition to urge CBS to take The Briefcase off the air. Currently, Caton-Phelps has 53,383 supporters. She needs 75,000 signatures to bring the petition to CBS’ attention.
On the surface, it is easy to dismiss The Briefcase. After all, exploiting people is par for the course when it comes to the reality genre. Many people have made careers out of their larger-than-life personalities. There is a difference between The Briefcase and the endless parade of Real Housewives, though, and that difference is the housewives all have money already, while the families on The Briefcase are in desperate need of financial help.
The aim of the show is to be uplifting, but there is nothing uplifting about watching two families tear themselves apart trying to decide whether or not to help their own or to help strangers they relate to on a deeply personal level. Yes, you could argue they agreed to be on the show and obviously knew there would be a twist because no one, especially not a corporation the size of CBS, is going to hand over that kind of cash without getting something in return. In this case, that something just so happens to be the dignity of the contestants, and unlike the Real Housewives and countless other reality stars, these are people who cannot afford to say no to an offer of a suitcase full of money.
“Turning financial hardship into entertainment is disgusting,” Caton-Phelps notes in her petition. “Putting people living paycheck to paycheck against each other is even worse.” She goes on to say she knows what it is to be poor, to not be able to afford medical insurance and to struggle to find a job. Most Americans know this feeling intimately, especially since our country is still recovering from a recession. Yet, there is a troubling dialogue that exists within politics and media suggesting poverty is the result of some sort of personal deficiency. I simply do not hold to that way of thinking.
The people on The Briefcase walk away with cash, but what do they leave behind? Their self-respect, their sense of altruism and their faith in humanity? Meanwhile, viewers watching from the luxury of their couches get to sit in judgment if a family decides, after rifling through strangers’ bills and hearing their story, that they simply cannot afford to let the money go. Somehow, choosing their family over another’s is meant to shame them, while choosing to give all of the money away is seen as an act of great charity and goodness.
You know what would be an act of charity and goodness? For people who have enough money to help others to actually help others. Asking two families who are struggling just to feed their children to give away more money than they make in a year is shameful. It is hard to imagine reality TV going much lower than The Briefcase, and remember, reality TV has already asked us to sit and mock a young child and her family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and to turn the Duggars into a household name. When will enough be enough?
There was a way for CBS to make The Briefcase into a truly uplifting hour of television befitting its summer post. They could have engaged two families in need to help each other in a more personal, hands-on way, or they could have profiled their struggles and given them cash because everyone is deserving of a helping hand every now and then. They could have found a way to not turn The Briefcase into a real-life Hunger Games for the amusement of the masses. I am disappointed in the channel and heartbroken for the people who were roped into being on the show. Signing a petition is a small act, one that won’t matter as long as The Briefcase is making the network money, but it is a positive way to express to CBS that there is nothing entertaining about blatant exploitation.