Telethons Lose Their Identity as Celebrities Overshadow the Cause


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“I don’t believe in telethons,” my friend tells me.

We’re moderately stoned and watching what the internet has dubbed as “Justin Bieber’s Telethon,” which is also loosely known as the Hurricane Harvey and Irma Relief Benefit, but was officially named “Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief.”

“Believe it or not, you’re watching a telethon. They’re real, you idiot,” I tell him as I ash a joint into a heart-shaped receptacle designed to collect waste of one sort… or another.

“No. What I mean is that, sure, this is raising money for whatever, but it is also just like the Justin Bieber show… like even if he isn’t doing anything.”

Even though I was kind of stoned, I couldn’t help but accept the fact that the celebrity hosts of our telethons are more about their own personal branding than supporting a worthwhile cause, which got me thinking… what the hell is a telethon these days?

The Museum of Broadcast Communications defines a telethon as “a marathon-length televised program devised for raising money for national and local charities or non-profit organizations.”

Telethons were originally designed to bring awareness and money to a good cause. The first was hosted by Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. The 16-hour event aired on NBC and raised $1.1 million for the Damon Runyan Memorial Cancer Fund in 1949.

This event — and the way Berle hosted it — set the tone for telethons for years to come. Typically, a big name celebrity hosts a caused-based telethon with operators in the backdrop taking calls from regular people, all while the host’s celebrity friends stop in and encourage pledges.

The format was adopted by the King of Telethons, Jerry Lewis, with “The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon.” Lewis hosted the MDA telethon for over 40 years, from 1966 to 2010. However, by that time, the marathon value of the telethon had grown culturally stale, and with the advent of the internet, the MDA telethon came wholly irrelevant.

The following year, the MDA telethon was cut from 22 hours to 6 hours. In 2012, it dropped to four hours, and by 2013 it was a two-hour benefit concert that barely resembled the show that once captivated audiences. This is the reference point I am going to refer to as “The Death of the Telethon,” aka DOT.

According to an article in Time Magazine on the timeline of Telethons:

Modern-day telethons have been distilled down to shorter, albeit star-studded, benefit concerts to respond to specific catastrophes — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, Australian bushfires — but none have had as lasting an effect as the MDA telethons, which have raised more than $1 billion to date.

That decline before the DOT coincides with the rise of the internet, which begs the question: Is the internet responsible for DOT? I can hardly say. If I were a middle-aged white man on television, I’d likely make the connection that millennials are in part responsible for DOT.

However, it’s not just the audience that has changed — what we use telethons for has changed. They’re no longer about supporting a cause so much as they’re associated with a benefit to help a disaster. And so many bad things happen these days that a 22-hour telethon would be an overkill of annoying proportions.

Around the same time as DOT, crowdfunding made a splash with apps like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Now that anyone could run their own mini-telethon by sourcing funds from friends and family, what was the point of even having a telethon?

Whatever the cause, the telethon as we know it no longer exists. With a two-hour airing time, Hand-in-Hand was barely long enough to be considered a special presentation. What we once called a telethon is now nothing more than a two-hour variety show or benefit concert where relevant A-or-B-list stars are grouped together for brief segments to pack as much celebrity punch that two hours can provide.

Am I saying the celebrities themselves should be blamed for this condensed version of the telethon? Only as much as society is for losing the semblance of an attention span it takes to engage in something like a telethon. Part of what made the telethon so interesting was the over-the-top quality of watching a host stay enthusiastic through a televised marathon.

Instead of packing as many celebrities into two hours as they could, telethons were initially designed to mirror variety shows so that the show’s length would be more palatable for viewers. This way, the show also built momentum by revealing how much money had been pledged along the way. It was like a sort of striptease of goodwill.

However, thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, people are now willing to binge-watch (i.e. marathon) television shows. So the problem doesn’t lie in the amount of time, it lies in the programming. Consider the idea that as a society, we have largely turned our backs on the magnitude of our problems. We want quick fixes for debilitating issues. We want a benefit show to end police brutality, even though a large portion of our country doesn’t care about taking a knee so fervently that they’d rather boycott a fucking sporting event.

I guess what I’m saying is that executives aren’t spending any time on developing this kind of programming because collectively, we no longer have a soul. It’d just be a waste. As a society, we have traded in the value of our time and goodness for immediacy and entertainment. The mere idea of a marathon anything sets people into a spiral, myself included.

Perhaps my friend doesn’t believe in telethons because he’s truly tuned into what society has become — a sort of parody of what television told us the future would be like. Or maybe we were both a little stoned.

Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.


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