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Are TV Telethons serving their purpose?

Source: Tomos Evans

by Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

As another year of ‘Children in Need’ passes – where celebrities and everyday folk come together to raise money for those in need – some have suggested that the format is out of date, and its best days are behind it. After a recording-breaking year where £50.6m was raised, this year, Pudsey and co. managed to raise £47.9m, a 5% fall from last year. In light of a proliferation of charitable causes such as Movember amongst others, are more traditional ways of fundraising such as Children in Need surviving on borrowed time?

“These types of films have been a cornerstone of TV telethons for decades”

Before I fully get into the debate, I think it’s important to highlight the brilliant work the charity has done. Since launching in 1980, the BBC’s annual charity extravaganza has raised over £1 billion for disadvantaged children and young people across the UK. However, not everyone is happy about the nature of the show. In what he calls the “BBC’s annual orgy of self-congratulation”, journalist James Moore, writing in The Independent, acknowledges the benefits the money raised has done, but he also feels that the programme frames whose in need as nothing more than ‘pity porn’. Many criticisms of Children in Need, as well charity appeals in general is that they provide a skewed perception of reality and add to the societal stigma of those they are trying to help, by presenting them as weak or inferior.

Things aren’t looking too rosy for Children in Need’s younger sibling, Comic Relief, where on top of facing similar criticisms, they came into a ‘white saviour’ row with Stacey Dooley and MP David Lammy at the epicentre of the debate. Lammy said that a film made in Africa which Dooley featured in was part of a ‘white saviour’ complex left over from a ‘colonial era’. These types of films have been a cornerstone of TV telethons for decades, and have brought tears to the eyes of many across the nation, but are they wrong? It’s a bit of a catch-22 really, though these films do a lot to show the stark realities those who are disadvantaged are facing, but it can contribute to unfair stereotypes to places and a group of people.

“Although dramatic, Moore has a point.”

Without trying to sound ‘red pill’ – since I studied this type of stuff for my degree – but those in charge of producing these films and the entire event use all the little tricks in the book to emotionally manipulate you into contributing to the cause. The sad music, the close-ups of people crying are all deliberately designed to tug at the heartstrings. On top of that, a much-loved celebrity bonding with and experiencing the sadness of their surroundings contributes to a feeling of guilt. Another thing I have noticed is that when in a film there are children featured with a disability, and how they need funds for schemes to help them, it is framed in a manner to make viewers donate because they ‘feel sorry’ for the kids.

Children in Need has become a part of the nation’s identity. Source: Focus (via flickr)

It’s not really about feeling sorry for these kids, most of these kids are extremely happy and are living contentedly as most kids do. It’s about proving the funding to provide programmes to help these kids to live a happy life in spite of their disability. Even if, through the power of editing of a certain narrative that isn’t entirely reflective of reality is pushed, it emotionally manipulates you in wanting to donate.

And if you don’t, as Moore jokes, your moral conscience (or people with too much time on their hands) scream: “Have you got your Children in Need fundraising pack? If not why not, you rotten, miserable, mean old Grinch? People like you are worse than Hitler”. Although dramatic, Moore has a point.

But at the same time, as much as those behind the films may over dramatise the films, the reality is that if they weren’t as dramatic as they currently are, they wouldn’t generate as much donations as they do. There’s a reason why every appeal film looks the same and has the same features – it’s successfully tried and tested. And as much as it at times may be sensationalised, the people

featured in those themes are in difficult circumstances and genuinely deserve or attention and support. Whether their need for attention and donations outweighs or justifies the way in which they’ve been portrayed in adverts and telethons such as Children in Need is up for you to decide.

But personally, it doesn’t irk me too much. I acknowledge its disingenuous nature, but at the end of the day, the money generated from it goes to a good cause, and not some big media conglomerate. And, for some reason, I still have hope in humanity and hope the average person can see through all the TV ‘stuff’ and not let the images of those suffering from a particular part of the world, or suffering from disabilities naively form their judgement on those groups of people, just because you saw a sad film on Children in Need.

But the answer to this whole debate is no, TV telethons aren’t dead. They still generate tons of money each year for very noble causes. Yes, the show themselves might’ve become a bit stale, and the tricks of TV they use are somewhat disingenuous, but they do a lot more good than harm. 

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