Poverty is rampant in the United States, and for many families their struggle to make ends meet is truly epic. But one reality television show is cashing in on two families’ hardships, and turning the unsuspecting subjects into a game show, and some critics are calling it exploitative and disgusting. Others, meanwhile, say it is just standard TV fare.

“The Briefcase” is CBS’s latest reality television offering, and is already leading its fellow unscripted TV competitors in the ratings game. The plot of the program involves two families, both struggling financially, who each receive over $100,000 to spend as they choose. Then they are then told about another family also in dire financial straits, and asked if they would be willing to share some or all of the money with them (The “other” family, in this case, is each other, though neither one knows it). They get glimpses into one another’s lives, the hardships each family is being forced to undergo (One family patriarch is a wounded veteran who lost his leg. The other is trying to overcome a failing business by living off of the matriarch’s $15 an hour job until times get better). In the end they will have to decide between altruism and self-interest.

That decision becomes a psychological struggle played out for eager audiences. “In the two episodes CBS made available for review, the decision weighs incredibly heavily on all participants,” writes Vulture’s Margaret Lyons. “One woman is so overcome that she vomits. Everyone talks about health insurance. Several people claim this is the hardest decision they’ve ever made. Many, many tears are shed.”

Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore was far more blunt. “CBS has found a new way to exploit the underprivileged for the sake of ratings,” he said, according to The Wrap. “Unbelievable. They’re pitting two poor families against each other and making them feel guilty about helping somebody for our entertainment?” Wilmore concluded. “Man, this show makes ‘Bumfights’ look downright uppity.”

While Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams appears to condemn the series, saying the episodes she watched made it “hard to keep [her] breakfast down,” she also noted that this trope of trotting out people’s financial miseries for ratings is nothing new. “In the fifties, the television show ‘Queen for a Day’ trotted out suffering females to recount their sob stories, and the woman the audience deemed most hard up would win the top prize — often a much-needed household appliance,” she writes. “For nearly a decade, ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ successfully ran on a premise of hard luck and reward. And though it lacked the uncomfortable competition factor, as a 2011 Beaufort Gazette feature reported, when the cameras stopped rolling, many participants were suddenly faced with ‘extreme tax and utility bills,’ and found themselves facing foreclosure on their brand new dream homes. … Like its predecessors, ‘The Briefcase’ pretends to impart the lesson, uttered by one of the contestants in the final moments of the first episode, that ‘Money’s not everything.’”
Source: Does CBS’s New Reality TV Show ‘The Briefcase’ Exploit the Poor? | Care2 Causes