At a time when fewer people than ever watch television live, how does a telethon have an impact? By going viral.
During Tuesday’s cross-network and cross-platform airing of Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief, that mission, certainly secondary to that of raising funds to benefit the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, was accomplished seconds into the telecast.
Stevie Wonder, the first of the Oscar red carpet’s worth of celebrities to make heartfelt pleas for donations via live feeds in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, and San Antonio, seemed to kick things off innocently enough, with platitudes of coming together “to love” those who have been devastated by the storms, regardless of “political persuasions.”
Well, except, Wonder instantly got political.
“Anyone who believes there is no such thing as global warming must be blind, or unintelligent,” he said, practically dropping the mic before the show even started. “Lord save us all.”
Was it exactly “George Bush doesn’t care about black people?” No, of course not. But it was a potentially polarizing and alienating move at a time when, even as images of the powerful storms and monumental wreckage they caused literally flooded our screens, the impulse, especially from politicians, to call for prayers in lieu of recognizing science has become an exasperated meme.
To wit, even after we tweeted out Wonder’s quote, we got responses chiding the singer for “undermining the objective of the telethon by alienating half the country in the first 30 seconds.”
Were Wonder’s comments unscripted, like Kanye West’s were in 2005 at the telethon for Hurricane Katrina aid? It’s too soon to know that yet. (It’s not like there was teleprompter copy for Stevie Wonder.)
But it’s worth noting that Wonder wasn’t the only celebrity to address the elephant in the room of climate change, raising eyebrows in the otherwise characteristically congenial and earnest—often to a fault—affair.
In fact, it was arguably the program’s biggest booking, Beyoncé, who also brought it up—and in a pre-taped video at that, eschewing the idea that at the very least her comments could have been spontaneous. It hints that, for maybe the first time in an event like this, organizers weren’t just amenable to the idea of political truth bombs amidst the sob stories and scenes of tragedy, but explicitly encouraged it.
“The effects of climate change are playing out around the world every day. Just this past week you’ve seen devastation from the monsoon in India, an 8.1 earthquake in Mexico, and two catastrophic hurricanes,” Beyoncé said, regally narrating our end times. “We have to be prepared for what comes next.”
It’s interesting to look at the way we remember Kanye West’s comments, standing next to a flabbergasted Mike Myers, all these years later. The knee-jerk labeling of “inappropriate” has evolved, generally speaking, into finding it mostly hilarious.
But what West did was bold. He took the artifice out of the proceedings, called out the bullshit in the self-congratulation of celebrities who happily rearrange their schedules for events like these maybe because it’s a good deed, but maybe also because in a weird way it’s a status symbol to be invited to present at one of these things, like a christening to the A-list.
There was a certain hypocrisy then in soliciting donations to help a government that was systematically failing a targeted demographic of its citizens. And he wasn’t going to stand there and pretend that there wasn’t.
It may not have been as incendiary, but Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé making a plea to acknowledge climate change similarly evades any intrinsic hypocrisy. How could all these celebrities, so many who used their voices so loudly in the previous election, stand in front of footage of those floods and not talk about the urgent contributing factor that the party in power refuses to blame?
In fact, politics, even in the telethon’s name, slyly pervaded most of the night.
“Hand in Hand” refers to both how Americans helped each other regardless of background as the water levels rose, but also how, as a country in an explosive time of cultural divide, we must put aside our politics to assist in overcoming this devastation as one.
“National disasters don’t discriminate,” Beyoncé said. “They don’t see if you’re an immigrant, black or white, Hispanic, or Asian, Jewish, or Muslim, rich or poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Third Ward or River Oaks, we’re all in this together.” Most speakers, which included everyone from Tom Hanks to Leonardo DiCaprio to Will Smith, spoke about how heartened they were to see discrimination and opposition be cast aside to assist those in need, because that’s what real American values are.
It might seem bleak that an event like this would need to repeatedly remind us of that, as if we’re worried that might no longer be our instinct. And it might seem absurd that political parties and agendas, mentioned in speeches from The Rock to organizer Scooter Braun, are even brought into a telethon about weather, but that’s the situation of 2017, upsetting as that is.
And the truth is, that’s precisely what a telethon in 2017 needs in order to be effective. The sanitized, emotionally manipulating hodgepodge of montages, testimonials, and musical performances seems dated in an age where viewers seek out and respond to point of view.
As news stories poured in about immigrants refusing to be admitted to storm shelters out of fear of being reported, or how racial inequality in major affected cities left low-income communities, and, often, minorities most susceptible to the dangers of flooding, the door was left wide open for charged political statements—even if these telethons aren’t typically viewed as appropriate outlets for that.
But times have changed. In fact, the “traditional” elements of this telecast were its weakest points.
So much of it is familiar. You could’ve pretty much predicted the set list before the show even began.
“Lean on Me”? Check, courtesy of Stevie Wonder. You bet Tori Kelly has “Hallelujah” covered. Usher and Blake Shelton did a competent “Stand by Me,” while the supergroup of Darius Rucker, Demi Lovato, Brad Paisley, and CeCe Winans took us to church from Nashville.
The stories of resilience, bravery, and selflessness that the celebrities told dutifully made you cry.
Cher and Oprah Winfrey, arm-in-arm, tell a story about a human chain that formed to help an elderly man. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have a tragic tale about a little girl whose mother died clutching her, attempting to save her from the floodwaters.
Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson wring out your tear ducts talking about wide-eyed babies holding onto each other while waiting to be saved from a rooftop, while Julia Roberts and George Clooney remember the man who played the piano while the waters rose in his house: “Let’s make sure there are always songs to fill the air.”
In between it all, everyone’s favorite camera shots: the rows of phone banks manned by real-life famous people, fielding your calls for donations. Barbra Streisand, Andy Cohen, Nicki Minaj, Julianne Moore, Ryan Seacrest, Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, Jon Stewart, Sofia Vergara: They’re all there, and more.
We mentioned the impact of these telethons going viral. Gone are the days in which we’ll gather round a TV because it’s amusing to see Marcia Gay Harden answer the telephone. But, as every shot of those phone banks showed, these celebrities were Instagramming the hell out of this telethon—a truly clever way to drum up more reach for these charities.
A photo of Sofia Vergara smelling Oprah’s ponytail while pleading for money? Sure! Ryan Seacrest posing next to Daniel Craig? That hotline number is the caption. Roughly 400 selfies with various celebs from Rita Wilson’s account? Yes please. Each gets a like—and hopefully a donation, too.
There’s no discounting the nobility and the generosity of any talent that takes part in a massive event like this, which seems like an unprecedented undertaking and monumental achievement—sadly, until the next one comes along.
We’re merely commenting on how much harder it is to generate buzz about them as an “event” in a society that, forget any political divides, is more splintered in their pop culture habits than ever.
Might the possibility of an impassioned political swipe at Donald Trump lure more viewers to the telecast? Undoubtedly. Look to the moments that have resonated from any recent awards show for proof of that.
As they’ve done with this hurricane telethon—and the dozens of aid-generating events like it that have taken place in the past—these famous faces are more than happy to use their clout to raise money and awareness. What we’re seeing as more effective than ever, and perhaps even wish there was more of in Hand in Hand, is them using their voices. In the meantime, their social-media accounts are a good start.