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Extreme Makeover or Extreme Exploitation?

Does the hit show "Extreme Makeover" target families with sick and disabled children in order to draw a larger and more sympathetic audience? MSNBC's Joe Scarborough investigates.
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A secret memo reveals how they pick people for a popular reality TV show that has been a ratings hit.

Twenty million Americans tune in each week to watch ABC's “Extreme Makeover Home Edition."

According to the 'Smoking Gun,' “Extreme Makeover” has a secret wish lists of victims the show's trying to hunt down: They want to find a family who has multiple children with Down Syndrome.  They want to find a child with a rare condition that causes rapid aging and death.  They want to find an extraordinary mom or dad who's diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Joe discussed the 'Smoking Gun' memo with Melissa Caldwell, from the Parent's Television Council, and Jack Benza, author of “So You Wannabe on Reality TV?” about this wish list.


MELISSA CALDWELL, PARENT'S TELEVISION COUNCIL:  I think this is a real no-win situation for “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.”  If they chose well off families or even middle-class families, that had no problems, they would be criticized because there are so many deserving families or needy families that could be served or could benefit from this kind of a program.

You know, so for them to criticize the show for that is, I think, a little mean-spirited, especially  considering there are so many  programs out there that have no values, that operate totally outside of any kind of a moral context,  that have nothing positive to contribute.  

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, do you feel exploited?  I mean, I know I'm never going to be able to look at it the same way with my family when  you have executives for networks sending out e-mails and memos to people saying, boy, it really would  be great if we could find children with this type of cancer or parents that are dying from this type of  disease.  

CALDWELL:  Well, you know, I have to question how aggressive the producers are in seeking out these families.   From what I've seen in watching the show, they are selecting families that are already contributing significantly to  their communities in some way, that have sacrificed a great deal to help out, either their neighbors or communities, sometimes animals, other people's children.  So these are self-sacrificing  families, as it is.  I don't think they're necessarily having a mean or a negative agenda going here.  

SCARBOROUGH:  Jack, it's supposed to be reality TV, but this seems rather staged, doesn't it?

JACK BENZA, AUTHOR:  Reality TV is staged.  What game shows have is a  committee called Standards and Practices. These are people that come in from the government to make sure the game shows are playing it fairly.

Reality shows don't have any of this. So what the producers do, they do whatever they want.  They play God. They cast these people. They look for people and they do a thing called frankenbody, which is they edit the show any way they want. And all they need is a little snippet of this person saying I hate this person, and they edit it the way they want and they create their own story.  

SCARBOROUGH:  Melissa, your organization has had problems with reality shows. This is probably one of the few reality shows, though, that you support, isn't it? 

CALDWELL:  Well, you know, when the genre first really took off, you had a lot of really trashy reality shows out there, like “Married by America” and “Temptation Island” and “Chains of Love.”

But in recent years, reality programming has taken a very positive turn, with programs like this, even “Amazing Race” is a generally clean show. So it's a strange turn of events that the reality shows have  turned out to be some of the cleanest shows currently on  television.  

SCARBOROUGH:  Especially when you look at  the way they started. All right. Thanks so much, Melissa. Greatly appreciate your being with us.

Jack Benza, I also appreciate your being here too.