Oprah Winfrey Keeps On Giving


On paper, at least, "Oprah's Big Give," premiering Sunday, March 2, on ABC, sounds like a winner. It's got the competitive element of "American Idol," "Survivor," "America's Next Top Model" and their ilk. It's got the "hey, let's help some deserving people" element of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and its ilk. And it's got the name of one of television's most beloved -- and publicly generous -- stars attached to it.

But two great tastes don't always taste great together; viewers will decide whether this odd merger of competitive reality and public philanthropy is the television equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter or pickles and ice cream.

The title conjures up images of Oprah Winfrey herself playing Lady Bountiful, as she's done so often on her daytime talk show and took to the next level by building a girls school in South Africa (and showing it off on a nationally aired TV special).

The title, though, is misleading. Winfrey is an executive producer, but the real stars are the ordinary folks who are given big bucks with which to change other people's lives. Ten were chosen, and the field will be winnowed down, "Survivor"-style, until one "biggest giver" is left. And yes, there's a prize for the winner, but according to ABC and Winfrey's Harpo Productions, applicants weren't privy to that information.

Philanthropy on television is nothing new. From Jerry Lewis Telethons, Live Aid and Farm Aid concerts, and Comic Relief specials to fundraisers for disaster victims and the "American Idol" initiative "Idol Gives Back," scheduled to return in April, it's been around for decades.

What is new is the personalization of philanthropy on television. While traditional TV-fueled giving has always relied on the poster child and the personal anecdote to put a human face on the cause du jour, today's televised giving is focused on the individual recipient in a way we haven't seen since "Queen for a Day." (For you youngsters, that was a daytime series in which housewives told their hard-luck stories in hopes of being judged most pathetic and deserving of a prize and a bit of royal treatment.)

On "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," host Ty Pennington gets up close and personal with the family receiving the new digs, going into great detail about the hard times and good works that led to its being chosen for the big build.

Its spiritual cousin, HGTV's Wednesday series "Deserving Design," has its raison d'etre right there in the title: These people deserve a room makeover at the hands of designer Vern Yip -- who usually fixes up a "surprise" room as well -- because they're especially kind and giving, have been through difficult circumstances, or both.

There's no denying these shows help people who need it, and there's something gratifying about seeing them directly benefiting from the help.

And while we wouldn't mind seeing the perpetrators of televised generosity hold off a bit on tooting their own horns -- or bullhorn, in Pennington's case -- watching these acts of kindness might spur viewers to commit a few in their own corners of the world.And that's a good thing ... as long as they don't expect a title, a prize or national television exposure for it. In real life, when people give of themselves, everyone wins.

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