BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. When the news spread of The Big Organ Donor Show from the BNN Network in the Netherlands, what followed was a week of outrage around the world and hand-wringing about reality television sinking to a nauseating low.
The premise - three contestants on the waiting list for kidney donations tell their sad stories to a woman called Lisa, herself in her last days with brain cancer. It was to be like the old Queen for a Day program, only instead of the most pathetic contestant winning a refrigerator-freezer, he or she would win one of Lisa's kidneys.
But, in the final moments of the shocking broadcast, it was revealed that the entire contest was a hoax, a stunt to raise awareness about the bleak donor situation in the Netherlands. The result: huge ratings and overnight impetus for a new national master plan for organ donation policies.
Chairman of BNN Networks' Laurens Drillrich explains why they decided to go forward with this bizarre idea. LAURENS DRILLRICH: One of the founders of BNN died five years ago of a kidney-related disease, and we always had the idea that we wanted to commemorate him in a spectacular manner. We are a network in the Netherlands that caters to a young audience, and we've done crazy stuff before. BOB GARFIELD: Netherlands is unlike the rest of Europe. It's kind of an opt-in program for organ donation, much like in the States. Elsewhere in Europe, you're presumed to be an organ donor unless you opt out? LAURENS DRILLRICH: Well, in many countries you are, yeah, like in Belgium, in Spain, in Italy. Holland is, in that, a little behind. As a consequence of that, the amount of organ donors is much lower in the Netherlands and the waiting lists are longer. BOB GARFIELD: So you perpetrate this hoax and it gets a lot of attention. It works like a charm. What has happened in the Parliament or elsewhere in the government as a result of the stunt? LAURENS DRILLRICH: Well, the show was just last Friday, so we haven't seen anything big yet at this moment. It doesn't work like that in politics. What did happen was that the minister promised to come up with this master plan before the first of September, which is something that is probably going to help us to at least solve some of the problems. BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside for a moment the central issue of organ donation, was this episode a statement on the state of reality television? LAURENS DRILLRICH: We had a very clear message, which was about organ donorship. Our message was not let's try and see how far reality television has gone, because to a large extent we as BNN also contributed to that. We're not hypocrites. We're not going to complain about that.
It does say something about ways that you have to find to try to attract attention. It's very clear that if we would have done a documentary about the three contestants - the three contestants were real kidney patients and they are on the waiting list - if we would have made a documentary with these three people to show their lives and to show their suffering, we would have had an audience of maybe 60,000 or 70,000 people and we would have had one or two small articles in a newspaper.
Now people talked about this show and about organ donorship constantly for a full week, and we had a 1.7 million rating, which is extremely high in Holland. So in that way, it does say something - that if you want to get your message across, very traditional things do not work any more. BOB GARFIELD: Hmm, well, since you raised the issue of confusing the audience, there was also the question of deceiving the audience. We called this a hoax, but a hoax involves telling a whole lot of lies. And you were making statements to the media about what the nature of The Big Organ Donor Show would be that obviously, in retrospect, we learned not to be so.
To what extent do you have to be concerned with the credibility of BNN in the Netherlands? LAURENS DRILLRICH: That's not really a problem, and we got a lot of praise instead, so maybe that's something that I can say afterwards. It was a risk from the beginning, I do agree, and I haven't lied this much since high school. [BOB LAUGHS] On the other hand, you have to understand that there were actual real kidney patients involved whose lives we were going to film and who were going to show us what it means for them to be on a waiting list. There were a lot of people depending on my lies. If I would have, during the week, when all the attention really got bad and big and all the international press agencies were knocking at our door, would suddenly have thought, well, now I'm fed up with lying, the whole thing would have just fallen apart.
I must also say that a lot of the arguments that I used to defend these kinds of shows were arguments that I was meaning. I was trying to tell them that daily life for people on a waiting list is like a lottery. And I was telling them that participating in the show meant a 33-percent chance of getting a kidney, and that's a percentage that they never have in real life.
So even though I lied about the main thing, the whole circumstances and everything around it were not a lie. And, in the end, we got a lot of praise. So it's not been bad for our name, but maybe it was a risk at one point. But it was a risk we were very willing to take. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you're the big boss, but I'm curious. Within the organization, as you were hatching this scheme, were there any naysayers, people warning you that it was just too grave a risk or just plain wrong? LAURENS DRILLRICH: No. During the week, when the attention really got big - by the way, this was like a military operation. We knew exactly when we were going to do what. And we came out with the story exactly one week before broadcast because we knew everyone was going to go crazy, and we didn't want them trying to find out what the real story was, etcetera.
Let's just say it became very, very important to bring the show to a good end, to find the right words. I mean, I sat down with the host to really write his final words at the moment that he lets the audience know that it's not real. Because even the people in the studio, and the cameramen in the studio, and everyone who was there, thought that the show was real.
So they were waiting in the last five minutes of the show for Lisa, the woman who turned out to be an actress, to decide who she was going to give her kidney to. And at that moment, the host had to say, wait a minute, wait a minute, why are we here, and started his story again about how problematic the situation is. And those words became very important, because we realized that everyone was watching and that if we didn't do it right, people were going to judge us for it.
There were people in the press department who were talking to journalists from all over the world every day, and they didn't even know that it was a hoax. So they needed to trust us a lot, but fortunately they do. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing. Kidney patients can get a kidney via donation from someone who was killed in an accident or something like that, but they can also get donations from living donors. The three people who appeared in the program, have they since received offers from living donors for their own kidneys? LAURENS DRILLRICH: Well, everyone who works in the media knows that if you do strange things that you get very strange reactions. So already during the week, when people didn't know that it was a hoax, we were confronted with emails and phone calls by people who said, I'm willing to give my kidney to one of the two people who are going to lose.
We didn't take that very seriously, and we also don't see it as our role as a broadcast to go into that. I mean, we just refer these people to medics or to hospitals. That's not how we want to solve this problem in the Netherlands. We don't want to tell people, hey, you have to give up your kidney while you're alive. We just want people to register, either yes or no, but to register and to make clear what their preferences are. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Laurens, thank you very much. LAURENS DRILLRICH: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Laurens Drillrich is chairman of the Dutch TV network BNN. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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