February 21, 2008 03:12 PM by Jennifer_Brown
But executive producer, Ellen Rakieten, doesn’t want to use the word “philanthropy” when describing Oprah’s latest foray into the world of reality television.
“This is a competition show,” Rakieten said in a recent interview, “about how big can one person give in a deadline. The reason we made it a competition is simple: because competition inspires people.”
Celebrity judge Jamie Oliver was quick to add that need is not always about money or a new house, but rather sometimes about “the intimate things.” The tasks that the contestants will face reflects this ideology. According to Rakieten, some tasks will involve having a great amount of money to give away in a short period of time, while others will involve having no money to give away, forcing contestants to get creative.
“The whole point of the show is that it’s not about millions and millions of [dollars],” Oliver says. “To measure the show in money is completely wrong. The whole point of the show is much more intimate. The point is that with a dollar or just with your time alone you can make a massive difference to your neighbor. To people, you know. To me that’s the clever bit of the show.”
It’s also the bit that made judging the show tough, according to Oliver.
“We had some set criteria for the judging to give us a guide: Creativity, leadership, presentation, and accomplishments. It was more of a guide than anything. As far as any show I’ve seen on television before, it was hard to judge,” he says. “To be honest, every week I was in tears. Every single week there were emotional things happening.”
Host Nate Berkus agrees. “The judges had to look at how they gave, not just what they gave,” he explains. “So it was an incredibly dramatic experience for everybody involved because we as the host and the judges became really invested in these different competitors and in their stories and in their journeys, not just the stories of the people that they helped in our cross-country tour. We were rooting for them because it was all for the greater good. But when somebody would make a mistake or fail you felt it.”
“[Oprah's Big Give] is a great cross between Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Amazing Race,” Rakieten explains. The contestants are dropped in cities with little more than a map and a task to perform, sometimes under great time pressures.
“They’re in different cities each week. The challenges are very different each week. It’s a combination of them being creative enough to think of how they can leave a situation far better than it was when they arrived, and how to get there in the first place,” Berkus says.
To make the contest even more difficult will be Oprah herself, who will show up on-location in surprising ways and surprising places to throw a wrench into the challenges.
“It’s incredible to watch how these people have to think on their feet,” Berkus says.
Of course, being reality TV, there will be plenty of drama involved. “The truth of the matter is when you put 10 very competitive people in a very intense situation you’re going to have some drama,” Rakieten says, promising “some real mixing-it-up” in episode 3. This drama, claim the producers, is a natural byproduct of the constantly-changing format of the show.
“Even we as producers get caught off guard all the time,” says executive producer Bertram van Muster. “So it makes for true reality. Nothing is manipulated. It’s really exciting to watch a show like this because you can feel that even we don’t know [what's going to happen].”
Still, drama isn’t the goal of Oprah’s Big Give.
“This is an entirely new idea for TV,” Berkus says. “I hope it gets people off their sofas.” He adds that he wants the show to encourage conversation among families and friends at the end of each episode, for viewers to ask themselves, “What could we do?” “We want it to catch on. We want people to see what they can do in their neighborhood, in their community.”
And as for plans for future seasons of Oprah’s Big Give? Mum’s the word on that prospect. “We’re focusing on this one. Our hope is that everyone falls in love with the heart of the show,” Rakieten says. But, she teases, “We’re very creative here. If we decide to do it again, we’ve got some tricks up our sleeves.”
Oprah’s Big Give premieres Sunday, March 2 at 9:00 PM (ET) on ABC.
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Photo Courtesy: ABC