Dutch Relieved but Ruffled by Kidney Hoax
It became the most controversial Dutch TV programme ever, and a talking point from Brussels to Berlin.
Could BNN’s Big Donor Show really be as crazy and unethical as it was cracked up to be?
Broadcaster BNN kept its cards close to its chest, and during the programme’s final moments it became clear why.
Lisa, the terminally ill woman who was giving away her kidney as a grand prize, turned out to be Leonie, an actress.
Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, for one, must have heaved a sigh of relief.
Making a statement
Broadcaster BNN does have a reputation to uphold. Not for the kind of ruthless commercialism that has been the breeding ground of reality TV, but for provocation and guerrilla tactics.
That was what its founder, Bart de Graaff, was famous for. And the Big Donor Show was nothing if not a memorial to Bart, who died from the effects of kidney failure at the age of 35 in May 2002.
Before the show went on air, details were kept suspiciously vague.
Who were the contestants? Would any hospital agree to perform the surgery? When was the transplant to take place?
All BNN chairman Laurens Drillich was prepared to disclose was that the three contestants knew what they were doing and were involved not just because of the kidney but because they wanted to make a statement.
A statement about long waiting lists, falling numbers of donors and the Dutch government’s failure to tackle the issue.
The programme began, not with the contestants, but with the prospective donor.
As “Lisa” walked out into the bright studio lights, the audience rose to its feet and applauded “the heroine of the evening”. Sharp, intelligent and perhaps a bit cool, is how she came across to this viewer.
The three contestants, on the other hand, were nervous, emotional and well versed in the clichés of reality television.
“How are you going to beat the other two?” presenter Patrick Lodiers wanted to know.
“By just being myself,” two of the three answered.
Three slices of life. Three people eager to show that their lives were worth living yet could be so much better if they no longer had to go through dialysis.
Getting to know them through a montage of photographs, bits of video and testimonials by friends and relatives was hardly cutting-edge television, but to be fair on BNN it was nothing like a freak show either.
Touched a nerve
In the end, it was the most vulnerable of the three who made the biggest impression.
Twenty-nine-year-old Charlotte talked about the fact that she cannot even drink more than a pint of liquid per day, because that is all her body can handle.
It must have touched a nerve with viewers, who had been encouraged to send text messages to help the donor decide.
Some 38% of those text messages were votes for Charlotte. However, just as “Lisa” started to announce who she was going to give her kidney to, the presenter intervened.
In the days before the broadcast, emotions had run higher and higher. According to a survey, 75% of Dutch television viewers were determined not to watch.
Most of them because they disapproved of the programme, although surprisingly few thought the government should put a stop to it.
On Friday, Prime Minister Balkenende joined the fray, saying he “regretted” the damage to the Netherlands’ image abroad that the Big Donor Show was undoubtedly causing.
Laughter from grave
Less stern critics suggested meanwhile that if BNN’s purpose was to draw attention to the plight of kidney patients, that goal had been achieved and the broadcaster could safely agree to cancel the programme.
No one speculated it might be a hoax. Least of all the dozens of journalists and camera crews, who had come to the studio in Aalsmeer from all over the world to see with their own eyes how unethical and strange a place the Netherlands had become.
It was something they were obviously only too willing to believe.
So, who has the last laugh?
The three contestants, who were not actors and who had been involved for the best part of a year while still remaining on a waiting list?
Broadcaster BNN, which defied its critics until the last and is now receiving widespread praise for raising awareness?
Or perhaps it was Bart de Graaff himself, whose taunting laughter rang out posthumously, on a recording, before the credits rolled and everyone was left stunned.