Philippines game shows: Abuse or entertainment?

This photo taken on April 9, 2011 shows a vehicle speeding past a Manila billboard advertising Philippine television game show "Willing Willie" and its host Willie Revillame (L) and co-host Shalani Soledad
Image caption Willing Willie was one of the Philippines' most popular game shows

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," says Magnolia Jacinto - a spokeswoman for Asia Against Child Trafficking. "The boy's human dignity wasn't 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.

Much loved host

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.

Image caption Fans of Willie Revillame idolise him as a hero for the poor

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," says Lourdes Bartolome, who describes herself as Revillame's biggest fan.

"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. Ms 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 10,000 pesos (£140; $230) for his dance.

With a quarter of the Philippine population living on less than one dollar a day, it is not hard to see why people travel for hours to have a chance to be in the audience.

'Panacea for the poor'

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.

Image caption The Wowowee stampede prompted nationwide unease about game show prizes

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?

Joey Reyes, a film director and critic, said these shows were seen as a panacea for the problems of the poor.

"They exploit the fact that people need a sense of hope," he says.

Not only that, contestants who recount the saddest personal stories are often the ones to win the most money, with the result that they "almost celebrate poverty", according to Mr Reyes.

Critics may not like these shows, but Philippine audiences love them. As is the case throughout the world, viewing figures for talent contests, game shows and other forms of TV that involve audience participation are far higher than for more educational offerings.

Every country is grappling with the extent to which television should be required to educate as well as entertain.

When severe poverty is added to the mix, and people will do virtually anything to get on a show to earn some money, finding the balance between entertainment and exploitation is just as important.

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