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On the failure of Knock Knock Live and reality TV’s faux altruism

On the failure of Knock Knock Live and reality TV’s faux altruism
The Fluetes family and their neighbors degraded for our entertainment on Fox's Knock Knock Live. (Photo by Greg Gayne/FOX)

When CBS first announced The Briefcase, I wondered why they show didn’t just give money away to families in need instead of using it to manipulate them. A few months later, Fox has debuted a show that answers that question and proves I was wrong. Such a show would be terrible—or at least, Knock Knock Live was pretty awful in its debut.

During the mess of a first hour, the show didn’t give us any reason to care about the families who were being given cash and prizes–almost $500,000 worth, Ryan Seacrest said. Many were, of course, provided by sponsors who had their names said by superstars like David Beckham.

Beckham appeared in one of two not-at-all-live segments, which undercut the premise of the show and also didn’t actually improve on it. The segments with him giving a family $100,000 and Common surprising a fan to give him a vehicle for his charity work didn’t come across as any more coherent than the live ones, despite being edited.

The surprise and emotional response of the people who were given money by the show’s co-hosts and guest stars was obvious. What was not obvious was how spontaneous this truly was. Why was the entire family home in ever house? And dressed? And wearing shoes? Am I the only person who doesn’t wear pants in my house? Why didn’t they go outside with all the commotion on their streets?

Knock Knock Live’s gross insensitivity

The absolute worst part of the premiere was when an armored truck with a police escort pulled into a cul-de-sac in a Los Angeles neighborhood and then blew fake cash all over the street. On live television, families got down on their hands and knees and crawled around, searching for cash. A corporation did that and asked us to be entertained by it, like this is some kind of dystopian future.

But that looked even worse when considered in the context of the previous giveaway, when Kellie Pickler and the band Florida Georgia Line just gave a suburban Nashville family a cruise and concert tickets.

Let’s recap: The white family was handed prizes; the Latino family had to answer a question correctly, and then they were allowed to crawl around to grab whatever cash they could.

I doubt that was the intent, of course, but someone should have taken a step back to realize how all of this looked, and it looked bad. The insensitivity continued when Kelly Pickler asked a Nashville family to try to figure out what a woman was saying in Cantonese.

How about trying some actual games? Or a real trivia contest? Or any number of other things easily lifted from other reality and game shows? While Knock Knock Live had checked all the marketing boxes, it ultimately lacked entertainment, and that was its major problem.

Reality TV needs to stop with the faux altruism

CBS The Briefcase

Knock Knock Live is now this summer’s second failure of a major television network to air a feel-good show. It’s different from CBS’ The Briefcase, which instead of just being a handout, forced the cash’s recipient to make a choice.

Both tried to force-feed altruism to their participants and the audience. They were like: Look how awesome we are! We’re giving away money to needy people. Aren’t we just great? Don’t you want to watch this to help us make even more money?

The Briefcase producer’s intentions seem genuine but the result was ugly, turning generosity into a sport. Knock Knock Live forgot that intentions don’t make good television; just randomly giving money to random people gave us nothing to care about.

When reality television shows place altruism front and center, failure is likely to follow, because the motives seem so transparent and all that’s on screen is the naked attempt at tugging our heartstrings.

Even if the result is the same–such as handing out sponsored prizes, as so many game and reality shows do, or creating drama from a difficult choice–television needs something more. It needs characters we can care about. It needs to allow them freedom within the context the producers have established. Knock Knock Live lacked the former; The Briefcase paradoxically didn’t allow any agency or freedom by forcing a choice.

When someone wins $1 million on Survivor, or $5,000 on Jeopardy!, we know them well by that point. We see how it’s been the result of their effort. Yes, it’s a TV network giving away a fraction of its fortune to someone who helped them make millions in advertising, but it’s earned. The show, producers, and network have given the contestant and viewers something for their time.

Neither The Briefcase nor Knock Knock Live earn their giveaways, because what was on screen was simply producers handing people money, reality without the television.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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