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Archive for Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kidney competition

Americans are not the only ones trolling the ethical depths to draw a larger television audience.

May 31, 2007

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If you thought the manipulation and exploitation of private people to produce television's "reality" programming couldn't go any lower, think again.

Many Americans are disgusted by the way our television networks play to human weaknesses and ignore normal standards of ethics and humanity in exchange for the sake of higher viewer ratings. We may see this as an American flaw, but a new series planned in the Netherlands shows that Americans are not alone in trolling the ethical depths.

A story in Wednesday's Journal-World told of plans to air a series featuring a 37-year-old woman who is dying from an inoperable brain tumor. She wants to donate a kidney, and contestants on the show will compete to be the recipient. Viewers will be given the opportunity to vote by text messages, but the final decision will belong to the donor.

The publicly financed Dutch television station justified this programming decision by saying it will draw attention to the hundreds of people who die each year because they can't get a donated kidney. Said one network executive: "Some people will think it's tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless: Waiting for an organ is just like playing the lottery."

Well, probably not just like the lottery. The system in the Netherlands may be slightly different than in the United States, but it probably doesn't involve the drawing of numbers or playing some kind of maudlin game on national television.

Calling attention to the need for more donor organs is a worthy goal, but we side with those that the network executive said might find this approach "tasteless." Unfortunately, similar tasteless approaches to entertainment have become too much a part of our television fare in America and, apparently, around the world.

It's often said that people involved in various "reality" television formats participate willingly and with full knowledge of the manipulation and exploitation involved. That may be a good enough excuse for those who participate in such programming, but what about the viewers? Watching a kidney donor make what could amount to a real life-and-death decision for three potential recipients is a little too close to the crowds who gathered to watch the gladiators in ancient Rome.

We like to think we are more civilized than that today, but events like "The Big Donor Show" in the Netherlands seem to argue otherwise.

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