Like most of the magazine industry these days, on ABC's "Ugly Betty" TV series, the fictitious publishing house Meade Publications is facing a bit of a budget crunch. In a plotline that could have been lifted from the offices of any New York media conglomerate, the heads of the Meade empire are deliberating whether to fold one of their publications or cut staff to streamline their operations.
Does "Ugly Betty's" timely nod to current economic traumas mean we'll be seeing more recession reality on TV screens near you?
TV watchers vote yes. In fact, if the '70s-era, Norman Lear-inspired recession realism of shows like "All in the Family," "Good Times" and "One Day at a Time" is any indicator, we will see more of our current economic crisis reflected on our favorite shows sooner rather than later.
"The recession is like the elephant in the room you can't avoid it," said pop culture expert Elayne Rapping. "These aren't the days of 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' That kind of opulence doesn't work anymore, even on TV. So shows about the over-the-top lives of the filthy rich are going out of style."
TV Guide executive editor Craig Tomashoff points to the demise of ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" and the near-death state of NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" as evidence of that trend.
"There's a reason ABC killed 'Dirty, Sexy, Money,'" said Tomashoff. "It's all about extravagance and excess. Considering current economic climate, people have really rejected it."
ABC-TV is owned by the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC News.
"TV producers are clearly aware of what's going on because they're experiencing it themselves," Tomashoff said. "Every day we hear about budget cuts or layoffs at NBC, Time Inc. or Viacom. It's not something you can really ignore. But real people don't care about that media insider stuff; they're facing their own set of problems. And that's what they want to see reflected on TV."
So what about shows like "Gossip Girl" and "90210"? "The programming aimed at younger audiences remains a form of escapism," said TVSquad blog editor Joel Keller. "It's youthful voyeurism, it's wish fulfillment, it's fantasy. And that's what they want."
The younger a show's audience, the fewer recession plotlines we'll see. "Reality doesn't apply to the teen audiences these shows attract," said Rapping. "They're not worried about losing their jobs or houses. They want to live in the fantasy that they can go to private school in Prada, get those cushy jobs, drive the fancy cars."
But more grown-up TV fare can still offer an escape, clarifies TV Guide's Tomashoff, who suggests self-contained crime shows and procedurals like "Law & Order" as the new escapism.
"Those shows remain the highest rated on TV," he said. "They set out a problem in the beginning of the hour, and by the end of the show, they've solved that problem. That's what people want when they think escapism. It's all about the happy endings, simplicity."
Which is why, TVSquad's Keller notes, it will also be tough for TV execs to work these downbeat story lines into comedic fare like "The Office," despite a perhaps natural progression.