Charities take center stage on 'Idol'

The Baltimore Sun

You might think of it as "painless giving." Or, perhaps -- a term coined by popular-culture pundits -- as "philanthrotainment."

Both phrases refer to the current slate of reality television shows that seek to attract viewers by benefiting good causes. Tonight, Fox's top-rated American Idol is throwing a huge, celebrity-studded concert featuring the likes of rock star Bono, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and Academy Award winner Helen Mirren. Proceeds will benefit poor children in Africa and the U.S.

But in a field that contains shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the two-hour extravaganza that is Idol Gives Back has come up with a novel approach to philanthropy. Viewers can experience the virtuous glow that accompanies charitable giving -- without actually having to dig into their wallets.

Savvy corporate sponsors will make a contribution for every vote that members of the television audience cast for the show's six remaining contestants. (Fox parent News Corp. will donate up to $5 million, while companies such as Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T; have made pledges as well.)

"It's a unique idea for a television show," says Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director for the Center of Philanthropy, which operates out of Indiana University in Indianapolis. "On the one hand, it raises money for good causes and gives these charities great exposure. But ... it relieves them too quickly of their obligation. It's too easy for viewers to say: 'I've cast a vote for my favorite contestant, which I would have done anyway. My duty is done.'"

Celebrity guests

Votes were cast last night for the six remaining finalists, including former Fort Meade resident Lakisha Jones.

The concert tonight, which will be broadcast from 8 to 10 on Fox, will be structured more like a traditional telethon. Viewers will be urged to donate either by calling a designated phone number or on the Internet.

The staggering array of guests includes former Idol winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, actors Mirren, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant and Sacha Baron Cohen, and a diverse musical lineup consisting of Gwen Stefani; Earth, Wind & Fire; Il Divo; Josh Groban and the African Children's Choir; Rascal Flatts; Quincy Jones and Annie Lennox. DeGeneres, fresh off her gig emceeing the Academy Awards, will serve as Idol's host.

Proceeds will benefit a slew of charities that fund health and education causes on two continents, including Save the Children, America's Second Harvest, UNICEF, Malaria No More and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Idol is one of the first -- if not the first -- television shows to employ a fundraising tool known as "cause-related marketing" on such a large scale. This is a technique in which corporations promise to donate a portion of their sales from a product to charity.

Cause-related marketing first made a splash in the 1980s. American Express raised $1.7 million to refurbish the Statue of Liberty -- and significantly increased its customer base -- after it agreed to contribute one penny from each cardholder purchase to the renovation project. A recent example is the highly publicized Product Red. Such corporations as Gap, Giorgio Armani and Converse are donating the proceeds from targeted clothing and shoes to fight AIDS in Africa.

But the technique may have drawbacks. Burlingame of the Center for Philanthropy worries that Idol Gives Back will be a flashy, one-time event that won't help the organizations long-term.

"The charities aren't really engendering ongoing relationships with people who believe in their cause," he says. "They're engaging fans of a television show. That's not a very good technique for building an ongoing donor base."

But Mary Kay Leonard, a vice president at United Way of America, thinks that the presence of celebrities and major corporations validates the charities in the eyes of viewers.

"It affirms the value of the causes," she says. "It gives them credibility. A lot of people worry that they may not be making the right choice with regards to their donations. I would think that would tend to increase individual giving."

Reality and charity

Though philanthropy is new to Idol, it is not new to reality television. ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition rebuilds houses for deserving families. During the finale of the first five seasons of NBC's The Apprentice, the finalists organized a major charity event.

And talk-show maven and former Baltimorean Oprah Winfrey is developing two philanthropic reality television shows for ABC: Oprah Winfrey's The Big Give, in which contestants are allocated sums that they must distribute creatively, and a second show with the working title of Your Money or Your Life, which will feature a needy family each week getting a "life makeover" and the resources to forge ahead.

Some observers interpret all this largesse as an effort to combat the perception that reality television shows encourage the worst aspects of human nature. Some critics have likened the humiliating ritual in which a different contestant is eliminated each week to public hangings.

Idol, in particular, has come in for its share of negative publicity. This year alone, the notoriously acerbic Cowell mocked one contestant who suffers from a form of autism and referred to another contestant as "a bush baby."

And just last week, Cowell got in hot water again when the cameras showed him rolling his eyes after a reference to last week's massacre at Virginia Tech. (Cowell has said publicly that he did not hear the remarks about the shooting and was reacting instead to an unrelated discussion he was having with a fellow judge.)

A show trumpeting Idol's so-called "soft side" couldn't be better timed.

"It can't hurt their image," says Andy Dehnart, a college lecturer who for the past eight years has operated the blog reality blurred.com. "It certainly represents a shift in terms of how American Idol is presenting itself to the world."

Dehnart, who holds a joint appointment in the English and communications departments at Stetson College in Deland, Fla., thinks that the concert is an effort to draw in more viewers -- which might, in turn, allow the show to boost its advertising rates.

"Even though American Idol is the most popular show on television by a wide margin, the ratings have dropped pretty consistently this year," he says. "Celebrities might actually draw viewers to the show who might not tune in otherwise."

Nor is it likely that the corporations are motivated purely by altruism, though their gains might be more in terms of improved public relations than in hard dollars and cents. A 30-second advertisement on a Wednesday broadcast of Idol costs $620,000, according to Advertising Age. Sponsors are likely to spend much more than that on contributions to Idol Gives Back -- but firms such as Allstate and ExxonMobil seem to consider it a worthwhile investment in their images.

"All of us have many reasons for giving," says Leonard of United Way. "To me, it would be naive to think that any kind of corporate charitable contribution isn't fueled at least in part by some sort of business interest.

"That doesn't mean that a lot of good can't come out of it."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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