In the wave of a fairy godmother's wand, TV has gone from gross-out to gratis.
"The appeal of doing something good for a person . . . is a perennial, eternal appealing thing for human beings," says Paul Levinson, chairman of the Department of Communications and Media Studies at Fordham University.
"Everybody wants to 'make it,' everybody wants to do better and I think people live vicariously when they see this happen on TV, especially reality shows," he says.
"In a way, it's the same thing that made game shows and quiz shows so popular over the years," says Levinson.
These days the booty even includes houses. There are times it seems as if an entire network could be devoted to watching everyday folks have their homes renovated for free to include hot-tubs, wide-screen TVs and beds of all shapes, sizes and motifs.
Making people feel good by giving them something on TV — and passing along that good vibe to viewers — seems to fall into two distinct categories
* Gifts — Oprah Winfrey cornered the market on this a few weeks ago when she bestowed a fleet of new Pontiacs on 276 audience members who needed new cars.
Winfrey taped a baby shower she threw this week for 640 pregnant military wives to air in October.
* Reality-show rebuilds — From ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (search) to Fox's "The Swan," (search) the intentions always seem to be earth-shattering life changes — at least, the kind that can be had by adding two Jacuzzis and a racing-car themed kitchen or a new, smaller nose and breast enhancement.
"I think people at home love watching people get free things," says John Redmann, who ran "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," one of the first talk shows to give out audience gifts and scholarships to needy college students. (Redmann now runs the "Tony Danza Show," (search) where he trying some of the same ideas.)
"It's hard to explain, but when you see someone receive something and you see that look on their face you feel happy. It's one of those human responses. Anything free, people go crazy for," he says.
"Even the celebrity guests on 'Rosie' would go crazy for a free t-shirt. I remember Sylvester Stallone was once so excited about getting three free t-shirts and a 'Rosie' doll."