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15 Nov, Thursday
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Tragedy at Ultra: Making Money Off People’s Desperation

THE HORRIBLE tragedy that took place at the Ultra last Saturday when a stampede killed more than 70 people and injured 500 others who were participating in the noontime television show “Wowowee” should not be surprising given the track record of the show’s host Willie Revillame and the ABS-CBN network in producing shows that exploit the desperation of poor Filipinos.

I have often written of the stupidity inherent in the games of chance that have always made TV noontime shows such a hit with audiences of all income groups. They have long been a staple of variety shows on all channels, promising housing lots, cars, furniture, appliances and cash prizes to a population starved of enough income to lead a decent life. That the contestants have miniscule chances of winning any of the big prizes is irrelevant to the psyche of those participating, or those wanting to participate. It’s the old mindset of gambling addicts who believe that one time or another they will hit the proverbial jackpot.

And the Philippines, lets face it, is a nation of gamblers addicted to the dream of easy money. There are millions of Filipinos who are always ready to give their best shot by betting some money on jueteng, on the slot machines in casinos or on TV game shows in the belief borne of economic desperation that winning will solve all of their financial problems without having had to work for it.

That “Wowowee” took this phenomenon to new heights is undeniable. Day after day, the whole show revolved around the circus of Revillame dancing around and singing his signature “Wowowee” song to a cheering studio audience, all the while collecting “donations” from wealthy Balik Bayans vacationing in the Philippines. While this collection of US dollars looked unseemly to many, prompting ABS-CBN to post a clarification before each show that the donations were purely voluntary, the host began doling the money out on air to poor participants.

This is where the equally unseemly voyeurism of watching Revillame night after night consoling contestants breaking down and crying while recounting their sad life stories, took place. Not only that, but he required them to perform like circus monkeys, either dancing or singing in a silly fashion, to the obvious delight of studio and home audiences alike, for a few meager handouts of $10 or $20 each. It’s what should be called voyeuristic pornography, as we could all watch these small moments of anguish and sadness, shed a few tears in solidarity and then safely return to our own lives feeling better for ourselves and the people we just watched on “Wowowee”.

The slinging match that is currently going on between ABS-CBN management and the Department of Interior is ridiculous and scandalous. Paying the funeral expenses of those who perished is hardly enough to get ABS-CBN off the hook of responsibility. If the network were serious about reforming itself it would cancel “Wowowee” and launch its own internal investigation of what wrong and who is responsible. Those found lacking should be fired and the network should implement a new standard of crowd management and control that it will use at all public events it hosts in the future.

But most importantly, ABS-CBN and other networks should refrain from offering limited chances for only a few people to win huge prizes. This is what triggered the rush of humanity at the Ultra in the first place. It is similar to the stampede that happened in Jeddah in August 2004 at the opening of the new IKEA furniture store. Ads in newspapers promised coupons worth SR1,000 (P14,000) each to the first 100 shoppers through its doors on opening day. The result: Hundreds of people showed up, some camping overnight, and three people died in the resulting rush to get into the store. I know as I was there.

Filipinos should also be weaned off this hope of one day winning the jackpot and having all of their money problems solved. This only happens to an extremely miniscule number of people. Instead, working hard and saving money should be encouraged for those Filipinos who already make enough money to stay above the poverty line. This culture of gambling only enriches the jueteng lords and impoverishes millions of Filipinos who can barely afford to be losing money through gambling.

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