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Lessons learned from ‘Oprah’s Big Give’

And only one of them is that it helps to have corporate sponsors behind you when you perform that charitable act.
/ Source: contributor

“You will be inspired,” Oprah demanded of me on Friday afternoon when her regular daily talk show became an hour-long, star-studded commercial (chef Jamie Oliver! football star Tony Gonzalez! Chris Rock’s wife! The promise of a future appearance by John Travoltahhhhhh!) for her new reality series “Oprah’s Big Give,” a title that’s already earned her the nickname “O.B.G.” around my house. And because I pretty much do whatever Oprah tells me to do — thanks for nothing on that goji berry advice, by the way — I set my TiVo for Sunday, ABC, 9 p.m. She also demanded that I make Jamie Oliver’s complicated veggie puree-infused homemade pizza before watching it but that seemed too complicated.

Anyway, I watched the show and learned a lot of valuable moral lessons — too many, in fact, to be included here. But here are the ones that big-gave me reason to stay up at night, thinking of my own capacity for selflessness.

Oprah can take a failed idea by Amy Grant and really get some mileage out of it.
Remember that show “Three Wishes?” No, I know, you don’t. It wasn’t on for more than about 20 minutes. It was singer Amy Grant’s show where she helped people with problems. Except no one cared. That’s because Amy’s not as rich as Oprah. And since Amy’s a Christian singer it also wasn’t much of a surprise that she’d have a big-giving mandate already.

But people LOVE to watch mind-blowingly rich Oprah give stuff to people. Or get corporate sponsors to give stuff to them. Or make people audition to get on a show to then be filmed while calling corporate sponsors to give stuff to them after Oprah’s production assistants make connections with the corporate sponsors first to make sure they know that someone from the new show is calling and not just some kook who wants to give musical instruments to a community center for people with Down Syndrome. Because then it would be only reasonable for the corporate sponsor to just say, “Whatevs” and hang up on them. Look, it’s Oprah who’s really doing it all. Worship her.

Big-giving requires sitting around making lots of phone calls

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Like I just said, corporate sponsors are involved. And the show treats us to a lot of super-exciting cell phone call footage where contestants simply reach out into the void, seemingly with nothing but The Yellow Pages to guide them. See, each team of contestants has five days to give something huge to a person/family in need. And then they get on the horn to Target and Target says, “OK, you say some kids need free toys? Yes! Best idea we’ve heard all day!” I had a tiny little question about how the contestants knew which sponsor to call and whether or not the call-ees got any pre-show warning that Harpo Productions was really on the other end of the line. But I forget what that question was.

You can cold-call Jamie Foxx and he’ll just drop 50-grand like its $1.29 Filet-O-Fish Friday at McDonaldsYou watch the show and think, “How do these people just swoop into a new city and set up a charity fashion show in five days?” But then you stop wondering about stuff the show clearly has no interest in telling you when it’s revealed that anyone can just call Jamie Foxx and ask for money. He turns into a human ATM when people do that. He gives you $50,000. Seriously. Jamie Foxx. I just saw it happen. What’s his number?

This country will never have single-payer universal health care or any other governmental safety netsThat’s because it costs as much as a house to go to medical school. One of the recipients of OBG’s media-largesse is a med student with about $200,000 in student loans he has to pay back. But if he can eradicate that debt then he can help poor people for free. Another is a wounded war vet facing the prospect of his family becoming homeless. But if someone will help him then they’ll all get to live in a place with a roof and walls. OBG doesn’t mire herself in social critique. That would ruin everything and disallow Bridgestone Firestone the chance to dip into petty cash, get shown being generous on TV and then write off the donation. Message: privatization is how the real rollers get it done.

Editing TV is hardIt has to be. Otherwise this show might make more sense. But it doesn’t. I confess that I had to rewind my TiVo a lot to try to piece together what was happening. We never know where we are, who’s helping who, what the motivations of the helpers might be besides getting to do stuff on TV, what happens after, if there’s a gift tax involved, or whether or not the recipients just blow the cash on Fendi bags. Nothing. I suppose OBG will do a “where are they now” episode on her talk show six months down the road. Or not. It might depend on whether or not this show gets the ratings it needs. Either way, I was sort of confused.

Malaak Compton-Rock has an awesome nameSeriously, doesn’t Chris Rock’s wife sound like she’s a one-woman break-dancing crew? You expect her to say, “Hey y’all, I’m Malaak Compton-Rock and these are my Malaak Compton-Rockers!” And then she spins around on her head. That doesn’t happen, though. And the show passes without anyone noticing how cool her name is. But I noticed, Ms. Compton-Rock. I noticed.

You have to do things Oprah’s wayThey kick people off each week. Doesn’t that sort of diminish the show’s capacity to big-give with each passing episode? Doesn’t it take a village to big-give properly? Turns out it doesn’t. And you get kicked off by a team of judges: Tony Gonzalez, Jamie Oliver and Malaak Compton-Rock. They actually rate the contestants on presentation and emotion and whether or not they liked making tons of phone calls. I think “eyebrows” must be another category, given the TV-readiness of all these folks. Anyway, the one woman who didn’t dig all the cell-phoning (a transit worker who seemed the happiest of anyone to get on the show at first, even declaring that she’d “eat a snake” if she had to) was shown the door by episode’s end. Dang. Couldn’t they at least have gotten her to eat the snake first?

At show’s end, only one big-giver will be left standing. And then what? Well OBG says that the final contestant has no idea that this is going to happen but that she is personally going to give that winner $1 million. Just to spend. On themselves. Suddenly, big-giving is much more attractive to me. I plan to audition for season two now.

This is not about Oprah’s cult of personalityBecause she says it’s not. Nor is it about comparing people’s tragedies or judging the quality of philanthropy based on how big a show is put on around it. It’s also not about feeling disoriented and lost afterward instead of inspired. Because I feel inspired now. I do. I’d better. Look, OBG, don’t come after me now. Please.

Dave White is the author of Exile in Guyville. Find him at and he’ll hook you up with Jamie Foxx.