Contestants Vie for Kidney on Dutch Reality TV

A Dutch game show in which contestants vie for a needed kidney sparks debate.

May 29, 2007 — -- For most patients around the world in need of a kidney, life is an interminable waiting game for an elusive matching donor.

The Netherlands is no different. According to Bert Elbertse, publicity director for the leading Dutch health organization, NIGZ, waiting lists for a kidney stretch to a grueling four and a half years, on average.

But for one Dutch citizen, the wait just got shorter.

This Friday three patients will compete to receive a kidney from a terminally ill young woman, 37-year-old "Lisa."

Dutch TV channel BNN and the producers of the controversial U.K.-based reality show "Big Brother" have come together to produce "Big Donor Show."

Watch "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. EDT for more on this story.

The program, which will be broadcast live on BNN this Friday, will show the three "contestants" (each of whom is a match for Lisa's organs) vying for one of her kidneys.

Unhappy with the prevailing policy on donor anonymity in the Netherlands, Lisa decided that she wanted to know the person who would receive her kidney while she was still alive.

On the show, the three prospective recipients will share details of their lives and discuss the day-to-day challenges they face. The 90-minute broadcast will also feature interviews with each candidate's family and friends.

All this in a bid to elicit sympathy not just from Lisa, but, more importantly, the viewers.

Executives Defend Show

When contacted Laurens Drillich, BNN chairman, he acknowledged that "the program is tasteless." But, he added, "the reality of having to wait years for organs is much more tasteless, in my opinion."

"At least in this case," he said, "the contestants in the show have a 33 percent chance of getting a new kidney. They would have to wait much longer in real life for the same deal."

Dutch politicians and media commentators have been quick to censure BNN for exploiting such a serious issue for a ratings grab.

The network, however, argues that its motives are not commercial in the slightest. In an interview with, Drillich insisted that "BNN is a public TV channel, not a commercial channel. We are not selling ads, we will not be charging viewers to vote by text message, we have no intention of making money from this show."

Why do it then, in the face of such intense criticism?

Drillich said, "BNN's reasons for getting involved in this program are quite personal."

In fact, the channel's founder, Bart de Graaff, was himself a kidney patient who spent 13 years on a waiting list for a healthy kidney.

De Graaff was fortunate enough to receive a kidney; unfortunately, he didn't receive it quickly enough. By the time de Graaff received the organ, Drillich said, "his body was so weakened that he died within three years."

Since de Graaff's death, Drillich said, "BNN has made a consistent effort to generate awareness about the deplorable situation in the Netherlands, as far as organ donation is concerned."

"Of course," he conceded, "we could have made a tasteful documentary about the issue, but how many people would watch that?"

"This way," he continued, "we are hoping to reach a much larger audience and alert them to this problem."

Lawmakers Call for Ban

But neither health officials nor politicians seem to agree with Drillich's analysis.

At least two members of parliament -- Joop Atsma, spokesman on media affairs for the ruling Christian Democrats, and Abraham Klink, minister of health -- intend to ask the government to ban the program.

In Brussels, the European Union Commission, which plans to announce an organ donor policy Wednesday, criticized the show.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Health told that "while we certainly need more organ donors in this country, this is definitely not the right way to go about it."

None of this fazes Drillich, who responded by saying "the alternative methods employed by the government to encourage organ donation simply aren't working. The numbers of organ donors in the Netherlands have actually fallen in the last 10 years. We need to try something new."

But Bert Elbertse of NIGZ doesn't believe that this new campaign will benefit those waiting for that much needed organ donation.

Elbertse told that "this program will only serve to frighten people. Seeing people compete for one kidney will give viewers at home the impression that people are simply desperate and eager to get their organs."

Elbertse added, "This is one of the main reasons why people often won't sign organ release forms before they die, because they think that there is such a long line of people waiting for organs that doctors will not do all they can to save donors' lives, preferring to transplant their organs into another person's body instead."

"Frankly speaking," he said, "this program will only spread the wrong kind of awareness."

Network No Stranger to Criticism

Faced with so much criticism, Drillich said, "While BNN respects the work of such organizations, we stand by our decision to make this donor show."

He appealed "for a little trust from the public," urging people to "watch the show first, then criticize."

Of course BNN is hardly new to broadcasting controversial programs.

Its history includes programs such as "Try Before You Die," which featured an anchorman streaking during a Wimbledon match between Maria Sharapova and Elena Dimentieva, and "This Is How You Screw," which focused on sex.

No stranger to the advantages of scandal, Drillich didn't hesitate to point out that "one week ago, no one was discussing organ donation. Now, thanks to our show, everyone is talking about it, which is what we wanted."

But will viewers tune in to see this decidedly macabre television event?

After all, as Drillich observed, "controversy doesn't always translate into high-viewing figures."

London Times media critic, Joe Joseph, however, told that he expected "people to watch the show," adding that, "They will watch it for the same voyeuristic reasons that they would watch a car crash."

Indeed, even Drillich acknowledged that his hopes for a large audience were based less on his expectations of their concern for those needing organs, than "out of curiosity, or possibly even an interest in the morbidity of the situation."

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