If somebody gave you $100,000, would you keep all the money for yourself, or share it with another needy family?
That’s the setup for The Briefcase, a new reality show coming to CBS. And if you think that premise is tricky, wait until you hear the twist.
“We’re testing the human spirit,” says executive producer Dave Broome (NBC’s The Biggest Loser). “These days, with paychecks shrinking, we wanted to tackle human values in a way in a big and loud way.”
Here’s how the show will work: In each episode, a family with financial struggles is given a briefcase of $101,000. That first $1,000 is money for the family to immediately spend. The rest of the cash comes with a choice that’s made over the course of 72 hours. The family can keep the money—all of it—or give some, or all of the money, to another family. As the episode progresses, each spouse takes turns having a chance to independently select how much to deposit vs. give away. Gradually, the couple learns revealing details about the family they are helping (or not) which could influence their decision.
At the end of the episode comes a twist: The other family has a briefcase too—and is also deciding whether to share money with the first family.
It’s like a Lotto version of the game theory Prisoner’s Dilemma meets Richard Matheson’s short story “Button Button.”
In one episode, for example, the family is described by Broome as a “right wing, Texas Christian conservative, God-loving, gun-toting” clan. They gradually learn that the other family is a married lesbian couple who want to use the money to have a baby via intrauterine insemination. “It’s like, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just won the lottery, but here’s a mirror that comes with it,’” Broome says. “Ultimately it has nothing to do with the money. It has everything to do with who they are.”
Interestingly, studies on human happiness suggest giving money away makes people more happy than keeping it for themselves. But such experiments are typically done with small amounts of money when conducted in real time. “It was one of the things I looked at,” Broome said of the studies. “It’s true, we’re happier to give than receive. And it’s happening right now today, the outreach that’s happening with the Nepal earthquake.”
Because families know they’re going to be on TV, of course, a level of expected public scrutiny could influence their decisions. Broome counters that on most reality shows, people eventually tend to forget they’re on camera. Besides, he pointed out, “They’re going to be judged either way. They’ll be judged if the don’t keep the money, and if they do. Half the [audience] will wonder why they don’t just keep the money for their own family. There is no wrong answer.”
The Briefcase, which debuts May 27 on CBS, will also strive to break the traditional reality TV format by not having a host. Instead, Broome will be on camera. Reality TV producers are typcially heavily involved behind the scenes when a series is filming—yet they’re kept hidden along with the show’s cameras. The Briefcase will break that wall and show the production process in an effort to have a more authentic feel. “I’m calling it the 2.0 version of unscripted reality TV,” Broome says. “This whole concept is so fresh and different and real and raw; we’re breaking a lot of rules. If the audience gives this a chance, I think it can change their lives.”