If giving is a ticket into heaven, talk show hosts are in

Increase in ratings often reaped when altruism is a theme

Material World

December 26, 2004|By Gail Pennington | Gail Pennington,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If it truly is more blessed to give than to receive, there must be a special place in heaven for TV hosts.

First in line at the Pearly Gates? Has to be Oprah Winfrey, who presented Pontiacs to an entire studio audience earlier this season and then handed out $15,000 worth of her "Favorite Things" to a screaming, sobbing mob of teachers.

Next is Ellen DeGeneres, who raised more than $450,000 for hunger-relief organization America's Second Harvest in her recent "Thanks-for-Giving" fund-raising drive, then followed up with "12 Days of Giveaways," rewarding audiences with such trinkets as digital cameras.

Don't forget the selfless workers at Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, who lavish needy families with rebuilt houses, complete with whirlpool tubs, backyard amusement parks and plasma TVs.

All this altruism pays off with Nielsen. Oprah ratings are up by double digits this season. Home Edition is one of the few reality shows with a growing audience.

The ostentatious nature of the TV giving has some people wondering what ever happened to the idea of unpublicized generosity, where the point wasn't to reward the giver?

Winfrey does do less publicized charity work, but no one she's devoting her entire season to making "Wildest Dreams" come true, already buying a new home for a single mom and her kids and getting a grocery clerk a bit part on Will & Grace.

DeGeneres, who'd never be called an egomaniac, recruited major corporations to pitch in on her "Thanks-for-Giving" drive and invited them on the show. Soon, a rivalry set in; early checks for $25,000 were supplanted with $50,000 donations; on the last day, CVS Pharmacy pitched in $20 million worth of products.

At least the corporate givers were actually shelling out. Billionaire Winfrey didn't pay for any of the $28,400 cars herself; Pontiac, which supplied them, conceived the giveaway as a marketing ploy. Ditto on the "Favorite Things" gifts, all donated by suppliers like Maytag and Dell, and the items handed out by DeGeneres. Every fixture, every piece of furniture in every Extreme Makeover home is donated by sponsors. It's product placement with a heart, producing publicity impossible to buy.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has taken flak for giving too lavishly to its needy recipients, leaving them with unaffordable utility bills and property taxes. Lavish giveaways are also criticized as creating unrealistic expectations for others in need, some observers worry, suggesting that all problems can be solved with "stuff."

Did Jack Bailey have these problems when he crowned woeful women Queen for a Day in the 1950s? After all, Winfrey and her competitors are only upping the stakes of that long-running daytime hit, in which sad stories were rewarded with new washers and winter coats.

We watch today, most likely, for the same reason we watched in 1956 - for wish fulfillment, imagining ourselves as deserving winners or merely hoping to be in the right place at the right time.

We'd be better off to think about giving rather than receiving, suggests Alexandra Delis-Abrams, "the attitude doctor," who has spent decades working to instill "emotional literacy" in clients and readers of her books.

"Many of us believe if we give to others it will mean less for ourselves," says Delis-Abrams.

"But the amazing thing about giving," she says, "is that you never know what the next step will be."

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