Kim Bergin, an American mother of three who owns a floundering ice-cream truck business with her husband Joe since he lost his job a decade ago, climbs out of the car, and pants and heaves by the side of the road, overcome with stress.

She's been given $101,000 US and 72 hours to decide how to split it with another family in need. Bergin and her husband just secretly visited the home of that family — Dave Bronson, a veteran who lost his leg, and his wife Cara, who is pregnant with their second child — to help them make their choice.

Unknown to her, the Bronson family faces the same dilemma.

Each week, The Briefcase gives "two deserving families" the windfall and a glimpse into another "hard-working" family's life. They must decide how much of the $101,000 they're willing to part with for the sake of these strangers, before a face-to-face meeting reveals both families were given the same choice.

It's one of several upcoming or existing shows that capitalizes on people's financial woes.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built mini-mansions for hard-done-by families. Benefits Street documents the lives of Brits on social assistance. BBC2 is searching for people earning less than $30,000 a year to compete in Britain's Hardest Worker, which will weed out the least productive contestants until one champion wins a year's living wage.

Critics have dubbed this controversial genre poverty porn, the oppression Olympics, and the working class Hunger Games. But what some say is exploitative, humiliating TV may have the capacity to do good.

'Incredibly exploitative' concept

The Briefcase provides families with a financial windfall and the opportunity to bring good fortune to another, executive producer Dave Broome says. It's "the holy grail" of reality TV by not only entertaining viewers, but allowing them to learn something about themselves, their families and their fellow Americans.

But while his Twitter feed is filled with gushing fans who've bought into the conceptBroome has also faced an onslaught of negative publicity.

"It's just so incredibly exploitative," says Rebecca Vallas, the director of policy for the Center for American Progress. Vallas challenged Broome about the show's concept on the centre's Talk Poverty radio show.

She says these kinds of shows use people's financial struggles for entertainment and reinforce the belief that some deserve to be poor.

She's not alone in her criticism. More than 25,000 people have signed a petition asking CBS to cancel The Briefcase. More than 26,000 are urging the BBC to scrap its planned show.

Shows tap into national sensitivities

It's unlikely either will be cancelled, says Ernest Mathijs, the director of the University of British Columbia's Centre for Cinema Studies. Mathijs, who has studied reality TV since the 1990s, says moral outrage rarely gains enough traction, as audiences are "sort of ambiguous" about consuming exploitative TV.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition

Volunteers carry furniture into a new home build for a New Jersey family on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The show built new homes for families experiencing financial setbacks during its nine-season run. (Chris Lachall/Courier-Post/Associated Press)

Part of the interest, he says, comes from these shows tapping into national sensitivities, like poverty and the growing wealth gap.

Broome and the BBC have defended their creations for highlighting growing social problems.

Broome argues that The Briefcase follows middle-class families experiencing some financial hardship, rather than living below the official poverty line. One featured couple earns $73,000 annually, but live paycheque to paycheque, he says, which represents reality for many middle-class American families.

The ethical test also sparks conversations on important issues in a typical American family's life, he says, like love, communication and values.

Broome says he's proud to create shows like this rather than guilty pleasures like Jersey Shore, which chronicled the lives of a group of strangers from New Jersey as they partied throughout six seasons.

"I'd rather push your buttons out there and make you feel uncomfortable about the subject matter," he says, because the conversations these families have are "spectacular."

Britain's Hardest Worker will also tackle some of our "most pressing issues," the people behind the show say, like if young people lack a strong work ethic or social assistance encourages people to be unemployed.

The show will highlight the type of work available in a low-wage economy and "challenge and shatter all sorts of myths surrounding the low-paid and unemployment sector," a spokesman from the show's production company, Twenty Twenty, told BBC.

One bout of bad luck

Vallas maintains some parts of these shows are inappropriate, like having families on The Briefcase rifle through each other's homes to determine their worthiness.

But, she sees their potential to highlight how many families are in precarious financial situations.

'If they could put live executions on they'd do it, I think.' - Bill Brioux, veteran TV columnist

Four out of five Americans will fall below or hover near the poverty line for at least one year during their working years, she says. Many families are just one bout of bad luck away from that, she says, and the leading causes that get them there are job loss, childbirth, or sickness or disability.

Vallas would want these shows to put their featured families' plights into perspective of "a broadly shared" American experience. She suggested Broome use social media and the show's site to highlight these facts.

That type of education could help push public policy forward, says Vallas.

"If we're all at risk of facing this at some point [during] our lives ... shouldn't we have public policies that protect us from the ups and downs of life?"

However, Broome says it's only his job to inspire viewers to seek out more information — whether it's financial, marital or spiritual advice — from the abundance of resources online.

'A slippery slope'

While producers present these shows as having a positive impact, veteran TV columnist Bill Brioux worries about how far creators are willing to go when it comes to improving people's lives for ratings.

"I think that it's a slippery slope," he says.

He attended Mipcom, a four-day entertainment content conference in Cannes, France, last year and heard proposed reality TV concepts that proved to him the genre is "bottomless" for how low it's willing to stoop.

One proposed show, Release the Hounds, would send people into the woods at night to retrieve and return with three treasure chests. If they didn't make it out within a certain amount of time, producers would release German shepherds.

"The tag line for the series was: 'The dogs don't know it's a game.'"

"If they could put live executions on they'd do it, I think," he says. "If they could sell ads for it, they would."