The National – Friday, June 24, 2011
By KATE MCGEOWN
HOW far should TV shows be allowed to push the boundaries of taste to boost their ratings?
One game show in the Philippines has stepped over the line, and now stands accused of condoning child abuse.
Willing Willie was the type of programme that is popular the world over; members of the public – both adults and children – perform in front of the cameras, while the studio audience eggs them on.
But the show was taken off air in April after it featured a six-year-old boy simulating a striptease act.
The host, Willie Revillame, cajoled the child into completing the suggestive dance, despite the boy having tears streaming down his face.
The audience seemed oblivious to his discomfort, laughing and cheering along with the host.
It later transpired that the boy’s family – like the majority of audience members – were poor, and came on the game show because of the cash prizes on offer.
Human rights groups were quick to condemn the incident.
“This was a form of child abuse,” Magnolia Jacinto, a spokeswoman for Asia Against Child Trafficking, said.
“The boy’s human dignity was not respected – in fact, it was violated.”
Her organisation, several other campaign groups and the government’s social welfare department have filed legal cases against Revillame and TV5, the network that broadcast Willing Willie.
Revillame issued a statement apologising to anyone who found the show offensive. But, he is already back with a similar show called Will Time Bigtime.
And his legions of fans are standing by him. Queues of people still wait expectantly at TV5 before every show in the hope of joining the audience.
“I’ve been coming to see his programmes since he started 15 years ago. I try to go to every show I can,” Bartolome, who describes herself as Revillame’s biggest fan, said.
“I was really upset about what happened with that little boy. But, it’s not Willie’s fault – other people are just blaming him because they’re jealous of his success.
“He helps people; he helps the poor.”
The hallmark of Revillame’s shows is the large cash handouts given to participants, and people love him for it.
The money undoubtedly changes people’s lives.
Bartolome won a cash prize in 2008, which she used to set up a vegetable business; and the little boy at the centre of the Willing Willie controversy was given US$230 for his dance.
With a quarter of the Philippine population living on less than a dollar per day, it is not hard to see why people travel for hours to have a chance to be in the audience.
In 2006, before an anniversary episode of one of Willie’s former programmes, Wowowee, tens of thousands of people arrived for the recording because contestants were promised that the prizes would be even bigger than usual.
Those on the outside of the queue started pushing to be let in, so the guards shut the gates to prevent a surge of people.
A total of 74 would-be contestants were killed in the ensuing crush.
Ever since those deaths, there has been unease about the format of Philippine game shows.
But, it has not stopped them becoming more and more popular.
As well as Revillame’s programmes, there are now many others with similar themes across the Philippine networks.
Are these programmes helping the poor, as Revillame and his fans maintain, or are they taking advantage of people’s desperation?
Critics may not like these shows, but Philippine audiences love them. – BBC