Dutch television broadcaster BNN provoked an international uproar this week when it announced plans to air a live TV game show pitting rival kidney patients against one another in pursuit of a donor organ. But when the show ran on Friday, it proved to be a hoax.
All along, the makers of the show had a deadly serious point to make: Shed light on the severe shortage of organ donors.
And the strategy appears to have worked. On Friday alone 12,000 people requested application forms to become organ donors and Saturday's papers in the Netherlands carried the news on their front pages.
The program, which had some 1.2 million viewers glued to their screens in the Netherlands and which attracted journalists and film crews from around the world to the studio where it was being made, appeared to be running as advertised for the first 45 minutes.
The concept for the show had been announced beforehand, and had sparked uproar in the Netherlands and abroad with many condemning it as unethical to make entertainment out of a life-and-death situation.
A woman was introduced as Lisa, a 37 year-old with an incurable brain tumor who wanted to give away one of her kidneys and had to choose among three "contestants" who was the most deserving.
During a pre-filmed segment of the show, the files of 25 candidates were summarily reviewed by Lisa and she rejected most as too old, too young, smokers, ex-smokers or unemployed.
”It's a little like playing God,” she said.
”Think of it as playing Santa Claus,” presenter Patrick Lodiers replied.
The final three contestants-- 36-year-old Esther-Claire, Vincent, 19, and Charlotte, 29 -- presented themselves in the show and were quizzed about their lives, their hobbies and even how they voted in the last elections.
All three gave moving pleas for why they should receive the organ.
In true reality TV style there were short videos about their lives, interviews with their loved ones and even the possibility for viewers to send text messages via mobile phone to show support.
But minutes before the end, just as everyone was waiting for
"Lisa" to choose, Lodiers revealed all. "We're not giving any kidney away; even we think that would be going too far" he told the audience.
"Lisa" was in fact an actress and the point of the program, it turned out, was to get more people to become organ donors. The three contestants -- along with over 1,000 people in the Netherlands -- are genuinely in need of a kidney, and were in on the hoax.
The BNN channel, which has a built up a following of predominantly young viewers through similarly hard-hitting programming, screened the show on the fifth anniversary of the death of its founder, Bart de Graaff, who had waited years for a kidney transplant.
"We worked on this stunt for a year but we never thought this would be such a runaway success," BNN director Laurens Drillich told a press conference afterwards. "We received a lot on international attention for a problem that does really exist."
Once the truth was known, the show, produced by "Big Brother" creator Endemol, for the most part won huge praise. Dutch Culture Minister Ronald Plasterk, who earlier this week slammed the program as "inappropriate and unethical" praised the hoax as "a fabulous stunt" and an "an intelligent way" to draw attention for the donor shortage.
But The Netherlands' national doctors' association, KNMG, was less approving. "A large part of the population now thinks that you have to be terminally ill to donate an organ, while in fact 40 percent of donations come from people in good health," it said.