NEW YORK (AP) — Consider: a reality show that spotlights the struggling middle class by handing families a cash windfall plus the option to help another deserving family to some, or even all, of that $100,000 gift.
Is this a chance for viewers to meet remarkable families who can use a little help and yet are drawn to help others?
Or, as some are beefing, is this cruel, manipulative and "poverty porn"?
CBS' "The Briefcase" (Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT) has set off a firestorm among certain TV critics and the 22,000-and-counting signers of a website petition whose battle cry is: "Don't let CBS exploit the poor and profit from this!"
The petitionistas are few in number when compared with last week's 4.9 million viewers of the show, but they have made a lot of noise, with a hearty assist from unquestioning media outlets.
Reality-TV veteran David Broome ("The Biggest Loser") is the creator, executive producer and an on-camera host of "The Briefcase," and he's flabbergasted by the knives drawn against it.
"It's as if the mission was to turn this into a class story: Poverty-stricken families pitted against each other in a 'Hunger Games' scenario," he marvels.
On the contrary, while the families are quite varied on the surface (for instance, a Bible-Belt family is paired with a Boston family headed by an interracial same-sex couple), the series hunts for common ground, while its participants spend the allotted 72 hours weighing a fundamental life issue: their own needs measured against those of others.
"It not only provides an opportunity to receive a blessing, but also the opportunity to bless someone else," says Broome. "The show is so little about the money! That gets you in the door, but then things go from there. If it was all about the money, I'd just give $100,000 to a family and see what they do with it."
This week's show features Rich and Espy Mata, both teachers and first-generation Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles who have two children, play in a mariachi band and run a mariachi conservatory for local youngsters to keep them off the streets. Meanwhile, the Matas are barely getting by and heavily in debt.
So are Cara and Mark Melanson, who live near Boston. The parents of four, Mark is a firefighter and Cara is studying to earn a law degree so she can advocate for children.
These families, like the others on "The Briefcase," originally thought they would be taking part in a documentary "about middle-class families struggling to make ends meet who also feel that helping others is important, and who find strength in their religious faith," says Broome.
Only later is the briefcase, and what it represents, sprung on them.
"From the start," says Cara, "I told the producers, 'I just want to be very clear: We're not poor. Our debt is very real, our struggles are very real. But I don't want to come off as crying that we don't have anything.' The producers said, 'No, we feel like your struggles are relatable.'"
"The briefcase of money is more a tool than money," adds Mark. "It helps you evaluate where you are and what you believe in; what you need versus what you want in life."
"We wouldn't have sought out an opportunity to be on television," says Leila Bailey-Stewart, who, like her partner, Tanya, works in the nonprofit field and lives in Boston, where they are raising their two nephews (and, like the Melansons, had not spoken publicly before about their experience on "The Briefcase"). "But we liked the idea of viewers getting a peek into a family like ours, which isn't often represented on television, and to show that, on the inside, we're like a lot of other families across America, including the issues we face."
In their episode's final, full-disclosure scene, the Bailey-Stewarts displayed free will and a huge act of charity. They gave the Wylie family of Texas (a self-described "crazy, fun-loving, hardworking, gun-toting, God-fearing Republican family just trying to make ends meet") their entire briefcase of money. (The Wylies shared $25,000 of their own stash with the Bailey-Stewarts.)
"We even shocked ourselves at the end," says Tanya. "We realized, 'Wow, this is what we can do, and we're willing to do it!'"
Like it or not, "The Briefcase" isn't a Skid Row cage match. It isn't "poverty porn."
Even so, an anti-"Briefcase" brigade has been roused by shrill and patronizing language in the petition posted on the Care2 website. It claims the show "mocks the impoverished" and declares that "if CBS really wants to spotlight the hardships of America's poor, it should donate outright, not exploit their suffering."
That line of attack could whip up anyone's support, especially someone who has never seen the show and has a trigger finger itchy to sign online petitions without knowing the full story.
"There are a lot of people who are being misled about what this show is all about," says Broome, who thinks potential viewers are being chased away before they give it a chance. "I'm a producer and it's my job to entertain. But I think this show can also change lives, and I want the audience to find it."
Or, as Cara Melanson says, "I hope things turn around, and the positiveness of this show comes out."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore