For the chosen few, the prize is a job — provided that they can pull the heartstrings of the audience

Let’s imagine a new reality show – with heating fuel as the theme. Cameras and microphones record the daily life of the low-income families competing. The prize is a full fuel tank at home or the payment of common upkeep expenses throughout the winter. The acquaintances and friends of each family speak to the camera and describe the problem of cold faced by each household: Grandfathers, well advanced in years; babes in arms suffering from bronchitis; schoolchildren shivering and unable to study; dying canaries; poets in gloves summoning the muse… misery of every kind is given a warm welcome. And the ones that decide who will keep warm and who will be left to perish of cold are none other than the all-powerful television viewers. It is they who will pick the most helpless family or the one to be most pitied. The title for this hypothetical reality show has not yet been found – «The Hunt for Black Gold,» perhaps, with its echoes of extreme games, or «Here’s Your Chance to Get Warm.» We live on the planet of television democracy. Television casts a roving light over an existing problem, and viewers can choose, here and now, who will sink or swim. Or, as is the case with the daily reality show that has been playing for a month on Alpha, «Here’s Your Chance,» who will find work and who will not. As the channels sink ever lower, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we’ll be seeing reality shows such as «The Waiting List» (for an operation at a state hospital), or «Student Transfer,» or «Tuition School,» or «The Shopping Basket.» After all, at various times, programs have offered everything from brides and bridegrooms, to cars, waivers on credit card debts, visits to fertilization clinics, electrical appliances or a career in music and showbiz. The diet of worms Spanish-speaking channels in Texas and southern California have been showing, since this summer, the reality show «Gana la Verde» (Win the Green Card). Players are immigrants without legal papers, who agree to undergo the most incredibly humiliating and hair-raising ordeals, such as eating burritos with a filling of live worms, jumping from a speeding truck or cleaning the windows of a skyscraper… The prize is not the green card itself, but free legal help from a specialist lawyer’s office. Representatives of the immigration service have panned the reality show because it «gave false hopes to people in need.» The whole of humanity’s hair stood on end. But as the production company explained: «We could give the participants cash or toasters. But we asked ourselves what would be the best prize for someone living in the United States as an immigrant. To have an expert handling your case is invaluable [help]…» Hungry people dream of loaves of bread; immigrants, of residence permits, and the jobless, of work. And television transforms the self-evident right to work into a philanthropic-cum-advertising show. It’s a fact that on the show «Here’s Your Chance» (Alpha), it’s not unemployed people eating worms or leaping from moving trucks that tug at our heartstrings. Instead, we feel sorry for the 28-year-old divorced mother-of-many who lacks the funds to buy her daughter a uniform so she can attend the parade on Ochi Day (October 28); we feel sorry for her because her husband beat her, as we pity the girl from a large family from Kokkinia that recalls the «seven people in one room» scenario. Thus we offer the job not to the most deserving, but to the most deserving of pity. Present at the studio, along with the two jobless people, is the representative of the company offering the post. A short video clip shows the activities of the company, which is thus advertised for free. The unemployed competitors have to answer key questions for viewers to decide their suitability for the job. One question is on how to make telephone reservations at a cinema. Surely, a more appropriate question to ask the 28-year-old mother of three, who married just after she left primary school and had neither house nor telephone, would have been: «When did you last go to the cinema?» It’s harrowing to see the spectacle of unemployed people, of their own free will, sinking so low as to enter the televisual slave market, or animal fair, and displaying both mental wounds and bulging biceps to the putative purchaser of their labor. But we are the buyer’s counselors, we persuade him to buy the lame horse because it has the greater need, thus placing «human beings above profit,» as an antiquated slogan used to say. Reactions The reality show in question was born in Argentina in 2002, then in the throes of one of the worst economic crises of the new century, and bore the title of «Recursos Humanos» (Human Resources). Certain television companies then bought up the rights and the show hit the road. In Germany, screenings were canceled due to union reactions. In Greece, the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) also reacted sharply, and was due to deliver its opinion to the National Council for Radio and Television (ESR) last week. The presenter of the show is Natassa Ragiou, who has been associated with the one of the blackest pages of Greek television. That’s a mere detail, as the content of the program would have been the same even had it been presented by the most angelic person on earth. From «no job is too low,» we have gone to «no degradation is too great to find a job.» Public response simply shows that the unemployed have virtually abandoned any hope of finding work through normal channels (the Manpower Organization, classified ads, state exams, or connections) and have taken to the wilderness of reality shows, indirectly begging for the viewers’ pity. If anyone is to feel shame, it’s not the unemployed but those making money from advertising revenues and building careers on bent backs, turning every sob and fleeting gleam of hope into viewing figures. Is there any cure; is there any barrier to check this downward slide? Reality shows are the symptom of a deep crisis, not the disease. They do not merely mirror the desperation of the unemployed or television channels’ insensitivity but also show how superficially we treat unemployment and today’s economic misery. We wish away the huge social problem of our age with euphemisms and roundabout ways of talking, such as «quality of life,» «citizens’ daily existence,» and heating fuel subsidies. And if condemnation of the degradation of such shows seems quaint, our gradual familiarization with and silent acceptance of them is simply a modern form of taking small doses of poison to give ourselves immunity.