The success of BBC’s Children In Need this year is undeniable; the night recorded a total of over £50 million, adding to the current grand total of more than £890 million since the first television broadcast in 1980. The annual event is, alongside Comic Relief, one of the UK’s celebrated annual telethons, and raises funds to improve the lives of disadvantaged children nationally who are affected by poverty, disability and child neglect.
The ever-increasing popularity of charity TV shows has brought with it a whirlwind of debate about the morality of this as a fundraising method. In the aftermath of Children In Need, this issue is once again in the public eye.
"Of all the methods of raising awareness of the great inequalities and injustices in the world, television is the most accessible option"
Naturally the shows are a powerful way for charities to raise vital funds. With increasing work pressures and ever-busier lives, many people find it easy to turn a blind eye to the silent suffering in the world. Some of these people are lazy; some just are oblivious. With watching television reportedly being the nation’s favourite pastime, the black box is arguably the most influential form of media. Thus, of all the methods of raising awareness of the great inequalities and injustices in the world, television is the most accessible option; whilst many schools and workplaces actively celebrate the day with sponsored events, bun sales and non-uniform days, the annual telethon allows other demographics to simply tune in passively and send a £5 text donation whilst watching the show.
Charity television shows also showcase charity work. These relentless teams of volunteers are rarely praised, and the telethons ignite a feeling of national pride by celebrating the generosity and goodwill of people across our country. Children In Need supports around 2400 projects, and without this annual broadcast many of them would fail to receive recognition.
"Children In Need supports around 2400 projects, and without this annual broadcast, many of them would fail to receive recognition."
When used in combination with other regular fundraising events and more traditional methods, charity television shows can serve as a gentle reminder and source of reinforcement. In spite of this, the growing popularity of these shows has also opened intense political and moral debate.
For some people, Children In Need and Comic Relief are evidence of charities bowing down to the increasing pressures of commercialisation and commodification. The shows are spectaculars which utilise a prime studio location, hefty camera team and prime-time viewing. Whilst these aspects of the show are vital for raising viewing numbers and thus donations too, some people are critical of the fact that the BBC does not choose to directly donate this money to charity instead.
The biggest scandal Children In Need has been involved with to date was the announcement in 2007 that Terry Wogan, who presented the show between 1980 and 2014, had been receiving an annual honorarium. Despite this being paid from BBC resources rather than the charity fund and only increasing in line with inflation, it has still led many people to question the financial motivations behind the show.
Did you know? In 2009, Comic Relief was found to have invested £300,000 in the alcohol industry, £630,000 in arms firm BAE Systems and nearly £3m in tobacco companies.
The telethons can also be argued as focusing on a limited group of charities and thus dwarfing smaller charities. Charity television shows as a rule of thumb concentrate on national and transnational charities, and therefore the hard work of many local small-scale charities can often go unmentioned. Is it fair that, through this monopolisation of the third sector, many voluntary groups get less praise and appreciation despite their work being of no less value?
This problem is exacerbated by growing public outcry over the groups which are being supported with the funding. Particularly controversial is Children In Need’s support for the politically-motivated organisation Women in Prison, which campaigns against the imprisonment of female offenders. Similar debate has been raised over Comic Relief’s apparent lack of gender equality, with a large proportion of the funds going towards charities that focus exclusively on females.
"Charity television shows concentrate on national and transnational charities, therefore the hard work of many small-scale charities can often go unmentioned"
Problems have also surfaced related to the way that the shows are directed, with people criticising their exploitation of guilt psychology to encourage people to donate when they do not always have the financial means available to do so. Furthering this, telethons can be described as a poignant reminder of how inherently selfish and lazy people are; it is harrowing feeling to realise how much effort has to be put in just to encourage the British population to open their purses for charity.
Ultimately these shows will increasingly cause controversy and public debate as Britain becomes increasingly inquisitive about what goes on behind the studio screens. Despite this, if the BBC has more transparency about the destinations of the funding and introduces more support for smaller charities, shows such as these ultimately have the potential to save lives.