The daddy of all game shows

Fox TV's latest ratings-grabber, Who's Your Daddy? has been condemned as perverse and offensive. But is it as psychologically damaging as critics suggest? And what does it tell us about differing attitudes to adoption in Britain and the US? Kate Hilpern reports
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You can almost guess how the conversation between producers at Fox TV started. "OK, we've got a prime-time slot to fill. What's it to be - another game show or something more sentimental like reunions between long-lost relatives?"

You can almost guess how the conversation between producers at Fox TV started. "OK, we've got a prime-time slot to fill. What's it to be - another game show or something more sentimental like reunions between long-lost relatives?"

"How about combining both?"

"I like it. No, I love it. But how?"

"Let's get someone who was given away at birth for adoption to try to pick out their birth father from, say, eight men, each of whom must convince them he is the real father. If the adopted person identifies the right man, they win the money. If they guess wrong, the impostor wins. Either way, the show ends with the father and adopted person being reunited."

"Fantastic, brilliant, genius. Let's make all the adopted people female, preferably young, and let's make the cash prize big - say $100,000. It's bound to be a winner."

From the outset, Who's Your Daddy?, which aired the first of its six episodes in America on Monday, has sparked controversy. The series has triggered both a huge grassroots campaign among adoptive parents, and complaints from national adoption organisations. Not surprisingly, they argue, the programme's concept is both offensive and voyeuristic. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan P Donaldson Adoption Institute, has even called it "perverse". "It takes a deeply personal and important experience and turns it into a money-grubbing game show. I think it is despicable," he says.

The reaction back in the UK has been no less resolute. "It's very concerning that such a sensitive area of someone's life can be exploited in this way," says Lynn Charlton, of the charity After Adoption. She is particularly worried that the format, should it work well in the States, will be copied here. Ridiculous though that seems, there was a time when we'd have said that about on-screen adoption reunions - step forward Cilla Black and Surprise! Surprise!.

At one time, I'd have made an ideal candidate for Who's Your Daddy?. Having been adopted at six weeks old, I was 18 when I sought out my birth family. Although I was brought up in a loving adoptive family, my eagerness to complete the jigsaw of my identity was intense. It is an intensity that I have seen in the eyes of many other adopted adults and it cannot be overestimated, and can quickly turn to desperation. It is this desperation that the television producers at Fox have, in my opinion, abused.

Like Julia Feast, co-author of The Adoption Reunion Handbook, my biggest concern is that people like me could have jeopardised this incredibly special moment and its outcome, for the sake of boosting television ratings. "Research shows that reunions between adopted people and their birth parents work best when they are very private moments," she says. "The problem is that people often fail to realise the depth of emotion reunions can evoke and then, like a bolt out of the blue, it hits them. If this happens in front of other people - particularly millions of viewers - they may respond to this in a way they regret. At worst, it could ruin the start of the new relationship." But despite the risks, Feast is not surprised that so many people applied to become contestants. "The context of adoption in America is very different from over here," she explains. "Legislation lags far behind the UK, with most states not allowing adopted adults the most basic information about themselves - in some cases, not even their original name. This can make it nearly impossible for adopted adults and birth relatives to find each other, unless they can afford private investigators. Even then, it can be difficult." Indeed, supporters of Who's Your Daddy? point out that television producers willing to fork out private investigators' fees, which often reach over $3,000 (£1,600), provide a welcome boon for the less well off.

Back in Britain, adoptees can still face hurdles in finding birth relatives, particularly birth fathers. After all, unless the birth father has given his consent and been physically present at the registering of the child, his name will not be on the original birth certificate. The difference is that his name will often be somewhere else in the adoption records and even if it isn't, most adoption agencies and many charities will do all they can to help adopted adults find out the information they need.

Undoubtedly, the disparity derives from differing attitudes about the purpose of adoption. In Britain, adoption professionals argue that it's about meeting children's needs, not parents. Adoption is avoided at all costs in favour of children being brought up in their birth families, and, even where a child is placed for adoption, as much information as possible is gathered about their roots. Frequently, a system of ongoing correspondence or even meetings are established between the birth and adoptive families. Very few women actually relinquish their children for adoption, and private adoptions are illegal. Not surprisingly, few children seeking adoption are newborns; many are already in school.

Compare this to America, where the focus of adoption is providing a baby service for childless couples and a "better" alternative to abortion for unwanted pregnancies. Only in a society like this could the recent reality TV show entitled Be My Baby exist, in which couples battled it out to adopt a teenager's child.

Patricia Strowbridge, president of Florida's Association of Adoption Professionals, explains how more conventional adoptions work. "Take Florida, which has 5,000 to 7,000 adoptions a year. Over 80 per cent of them are private and most of these involve young women. In many cases, they simply can't afford to keep their babies because income is so low and welfare is so poor. So they get in touch with an adoption agency."

Middle-class, often wealthy, couples and single people on the agency's books step in if they like the look of the mum-to-be and, in return for paying living expenses and medical bills, they get to take home her baby, often directly from the hospital. And while many of the adoptive parents agree to ongoing contact with the birth mother, a lot don't and the baby's roots are conveniently pushed aside. Adoptees are left with little or no access to their histories - just as they were in Britain prior to the 1975 Children Act.

By no means is it a case of great Brits versus bad Yanks, however. Many British people admit they would happily opt for American-style adoption laws over ours, and couples often prefer the idea of their baby having no known history. Only last week, the Cabinet Office minister David Miliband and his wife Louise controversially managed to bypass UK adoption standards to adopt a baby boy in the US. The couple flew out before Christmas to be present at the birth of Isaac James Miliband, and returned to their London home on Christmas Eve with their new baby. Because Mrs Miliband grew up in the US, she has adoption rights in America, although debate is still raging as to whether Miliband used his influence to "fast-track" the certificate of eligibility they required for the adoption to go ahead. He has, so far, refused to comment.

For adopted children, though, not knowing where you come from, or even such basic information as your birth name, can leave you extremely vulnerable, a fact that Felicity Collier, the chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), believes Who's Your Daddy? shamefully exploits . "It shows how very vulnerable adopted people can become when they want to know where they came from and it exploits this in the most appalling way," she says.

As if this isn't bad enough, she continues, contestants could guess the wrong father - surely a recipe for disaster. "Birth fathers have often been made to feel an insignificant part of the adoption process, with many not even wanting their babies to be adopted. Some have had decades of wondering what happened to that baby. To put them in a position where yet again they may feel unimportant could have an adverse effect on them and could certainly affect their relationship with their adult child," says a spokesperson for the Natural Parents Network. "Suppose a relative of the birth father watches the show and has no idea this adopted person - their blood relation - existed," adds Feast. "Or suppose very private information is aired about the birth mother. Adoptive parents could be left very upset by watching the programme too."

So strongly does Deborah Capone feel about this that the American adoptive mother of a five-year-old has set up an e-mail campaign that has generated more than 5,000 messages to Fox in an attempt to axe the show. Having failed so far, her current plans include encouraging her supporters to target advertisers and Fox TV affiliates to persuade them to abandon the rest of the series. Joseph Kroll, an American adoptive parent of a 29-year-old daughter who is searching for her birth father, is backing her all the way. "If someone were to try doing that to my daughter, what I consider to be abuse, I would not behave appropriately," he says.

But Kevin Healey, one of the show's executive producers, is genuinely bemused by such reactions, pointing out that the participants were all willing and informed. The very concept of the series, he has explained, was inspired by a friend who is adopted. "It came from a very pure place not from a place of trying to embarrass or harm anyone," he told Reuters last month.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Dusky, author of Birthmark, a memoir about surrendering her daughter for adoption, and the New York representative of the American Adoption Congress, defends Who's Your Daddy? by claiming it's not so different from the hundreds of birth parent-adopted child reunions that are broadcast to millions on the likes of Oprah. And while there are plenty of arguments opposing them, she points out that many adoptee-rights activists have not only gone along with these on-screen reunions, but actively participate, often appearing on the set to campaign for birth records to be made more easily available.

She admits the cash prize and the game-show element of Who's Your Daddy?, as well as its title, makes this programme more provocative. Nevertheless, she says, in putting the shows together, producers have reunited several pairs of fathers and daughters. Others maintain that while the birth mother is becoming more visible in the world of reunions, the birth father is still a shadowy figure - and that Who's Your Daddy? reveals how significant he is. Some go further still, suggesting the programme demonstrates how much adoption reunions mean to people, thereby encouraging public support for laws to keep changing to enable people to have them.

What's perverse is not the show itself, concludes Dusky, but that legislators, adoption agencies, adoption lawyers and many charities in the United States rush to "protect" people from their own offspring. "If it takes something as seemingly vulgar as Who's Your Daddy? to make the scales fall from their eyes, bring it on," she says.

Only time will tell if the contestants feel as positively about being pawns in a greater debate around adoption rights. Ultimately, the real motives of Fox TV are about money, which huge audiences will no doubt bring in. But in making the programme, Fox risks denigrating the experiences of families touched by adoption. Any adopted person wishing to meet their birth father is asking one of the most profound questions possible - who am I? This is not the stuff of game shows.