Why CBS’ Embattled ‘Poverty Porn’ Series ‘The Briefcase’ Could Be Shut Permanently

Expert bets “cruel,” “gross” unscripted show will never be heard from again after its Season 1 finale — but offers some advice just in case

Last Updated: June 26, 2015 @ 11:00 AM

“The Briefcase” has been critically and publicly panned for its perceived tone-deaf premise, and the CBS reality series’ ratings haven’t exactly taken the summer by storm. So, is there any chance that the show, described by critics as “poverty porn,” has a shot at redemption with a second season?

Independent cultural expert Linda Ong is betting against a return. Her brand consultancy group considered “The Briefcase” as a “Show to Know” — their mark of a new series that is culturally notable — before the public backlash began, ultimately deciding against the label. The group noted problems with the show’s premise.

“We came away very conflicted about it,” TruthCo. chief executive officer Ong told TheWrap. “The concept was very culturally relevant, the execution was very … not.”

The show features struggling families who are presented with a briefcase containing $101,000. But before they can spend a dime, they are presented with a difficult choice: either keep the money or give all or part of it to another needy family. What they don’t know is that the other family has also received a similar briefcase and instructions.

“That show is all about manipulation, and because of it, it has a humiliation quality that we’ve moved away from in culture in reality TV,” Ong explained. “It just felt really, kind of, cruel.”

She recalled a note written by her team after they viewed the pilot episode. “We find it culturally relevant, but kind of gross,” a TruthCo. internal report read.

The “culturally relevant” part of “The Briefcase” comes from the reality of many people today being forced to rethink complicated attitudes toward money and deal with mounting financial challenges, something the show plays off of — or possibly preys on. The actual execution is the “gross” part.

“It’s uncomfortable to watch — in a bad way,” Ong explained.

Uncomfortable and panned by critics and viewers alike. On Metascore, the series has a 27 out of 100, per critics. The user score is a 1.9 out of 10.

On IMDb, the series has a 3.2 rating out of 10. And here is the show’s very simple premise, per that website: “Poor families are given money. They can choose to keep it, keep some, or give it all away.”

The Briefcase

The network itself maintains that it is too early to make a call on renewal or cancellation, and reps didn’t want to participate in this story beyond that. The show’s creator and executive producer David Broome has previously defended the series, saying it has been “mischaracterized.”

In addition to the negative press “The Briefcase” has received, members of the public have also spoken out against the show. At the time of this writing, a Care2 petition to cancel the series was a mere 15 signatures away from its goal of 25,000.

“On May 27, CBS aired the first episode of ‘The Briefcase,’ which spotlights American families struggling with financial hardship or debt. They are suddenly given $101,000 and a choice: They can keep the money or give some or all of it to another needy family,” petition author Ashley Neumeister wrote. “Consider that CBS’ CEO makes $54 million a year. If CBS really wants to spotlight the hardships of America’s poor, it should donate outright, not exploit their suffering.”

Beyond the lackluster critical reception, here are some more numbers that don’t work in the series’ favor. “The Briefcase” has a 1.1 average rating in the advertiser-sought 18-49 demographic, which is on par with NBC’s unimpressive “The Slap” and the CW’s “Vampire Diaries.” The number, which includes Live Plus 7 Day viewing where available, is lower than one-and-done series “Manhattan Love Story” and “Cristela.”

Of course, “The Briefcase” is a summer show, making those comparisons not precisely apples-to-apples. Among its warm-monthed brethren, the CBS reality show matches fourth-place Fox’s “Bullseye” and trails ABC’s uninspired “Celebrity Wife Swap” by one-tenth of a ratings point. It’s also not on an upward trajectory towards the end of its short run.

On Wednesday, “The Briefcase” stayed flat week-over-week, despite having the coveted “Big Brother” season premiere as its lead-in. Given that leg-up, the show’s unchanged numbers can actually be interpreted as negative momentum.

The older-skewing CBS is slightly less concerned with that main demo than its competition, and “The Briefcase” fairs a little better older — but not much. Headed into Wednesday’s penultimate episode, the “most current” season average for “The Briefcase” in total viewers was 5.843 million. That’s not bad for a summer audience, but it’s also not cause for optimism.

CBS

CBS

Direct ad sales dollars aside, Ong believes that networks are also being held to a higher social standard these days, much like the packaged goods industry has felt public pressure to go green. That expectation is also not going to make a “Briefcase” comeback easy.

Still, she had some advice for CBS, should the show return: Make incremental changes that take it more towards the “Shark Tank” mold, a reality series that Ong says offers valuable takeaways. At the very least, one learns how to pitch and negotiate by watching the hit ABC unscripted series — embarrassment included or not.

“You can’t watch ‘Shark Tank’ without learning something. I defy someone to try that,” she offered.

“If we were working with CBS, I’d say: ‘Remove the manipulation, take the focus off humiliation,” Ong concluded. “‘Teach [contestants] some valuable life skills or arm them with people who can guide them, because the money is not the end point  — it’s what you do with the money.'”

Season 1 of “The Briefcase” airs Friday night at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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