Review: Telethons

As soon as I heard the late history professor and disability rights advocate Paul K. Longmore was writing a book about telethons, I got excited. As someone with spinal muscular activity, the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on Labor Day was a big deal. When I was younger, I was excited to be on my local TV broadcast, telling stories about MDA camp and friends with neuromuscular disorders. In my mid-teen years, I began to hate what the Telethon stood for – pity, exploitation, and fearmongering. Longmore’s book, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity summed up all my feelings and introduced me to some new revelations.

Longmore’s impeccable research focuses on four major American telethons: the United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCP), the Arthritis Foundation, the National Easter Seals Society, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). The UCP was the first charity to begin a multi-hour fundraising program for disabled beneficiaries in 1950. However,  the MDA created the “modern” telethon, reaching 100 million viewers at its pinnacle.

Of course, telethons are now generally viewed as relics. Their decline began in the 1980s, when more of the television audience demanded regular overnight programming. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission under the Reagan administration deregulated the requirement that local television stations provide community service programming. As such, stations began requiring that the charities sponsoring telethons pay akin to what stations were losing in preemptions and other revenue. Longmore states that the price was sometimes more than $250,000 per hour! (No wonder the MDA recently decided to terminate its telethon programming.)

Interestingly, the decision to nix the telethon drew great criticism from not only some beneficiaries, but also many donors. Longmore writes that telethons “democratized giving.”

No longer relying mainly on a social elite’s sense of noblesse oblige, it mobilized mass publics and sought to instill in them the habit of giving. In reaching the public through the mass media, charity fundraising reflected and reinforced the interpersonal disconnectedness of modern life as it widened the social distance between givers and receivers.

Indeed, Longmore documents the specific role that each participant played – sometimes gleefully, sometimes unwittingly.

Until reading Telethons, I was unaware of the benefits corporate sponsors received by issuing donations to telethons. Obviously, their appearance helped generate goodwill for the companies and their management officials. But asking viewers to purchase a product in order for a portion of the purchase price to go to a particular charity boosted corporate revenue immensely. For example, by offering a charitable donation, American Express increased credit card donations by one-third and yielded $17 million! Known as “cause-related marketing,” corporate public relations officials bolstered profit. Need more proof? “Former executives at two of the charities confidentially disclosed that their telethons lasted as long as they did only at the corporate sponsors’ insistence.”

Donors benefited from their ability to engage in “conspicuous contribution.” They could pick up the telephone, throw a few dollars at a problem, and have the whole world know they did a good thing. Whether having their name posted on the Star Board or sharing photos of themselves locked up in a faux fundraising prison, donors enjoyed the gratification of public praise. Longmore also suggests that some donors of a conservative bent may have preferred charity models of healthcare to government-sponsored healthcare, meaning that, by donating, they could keep socialist reforms at bay.

And, certainly, poster children played their part as well. Easter Seals trained local offices that “children raised more money than adults. Donors “sympathized with images of ‘the most weak.'”  (It should be noted that, at least as far as Lewis was concerned, poster children couldn’t be too weak – “he says he doesn’t want to bend over a wheelchair to raise a buck.”)  Couched in the “narrative techniques, character, and plot devices used in sentimental literature and Victorian fiction, [telethons used poster children in] combining three standard sentimental devices: unmerited affliction through illness or accident, the suffering of children, and emotional excess.”

In addition to this basic overview, the book offers far more insight.  Readers will learn about how Lewis enforced patriarchal culture by branding his “Kids,”  how Jerry’s Orphans fought back in an effort to regain stolen dignity, and how the medical model persisted throughout charitable engagement. With my weak SMA-“afflicted” thumbs, I give this book two thumbs up!