Truth in Television? Recession Realities Hit the Small Screen

From "All My Children" to "Ugly Betty," recession rears its head in TV plots.

Dec. 8, 2008— -- 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.

"Dunder Mifflin may be doing poorly as it is," he said, referring to the fictional paper company the show is based on. "So it seems like it would be an organic story line for 'The Office.' But it's hard to get a laugh out of layoffs and foreclosures. Plus, because many of the shows end up syndicated, they want to stay timeless and upbeat. So while you may see a passing reference on a show like that, recession plotlines will remain the realm of TV dramas."

TV Guide's Tomashoff suggests the first place viewers will really see recession realities seeping into stories will be on their favorite soap operas.

In fact, reps from ABC report recession-related plots like company slowdowns and job-hunting issues on all three of its daytime dramas, "General Hospital," "All My Children" and "One Life to Live."

"Soaps are the most immediate scripted programming and they attract more of a mass audience," he said. "They want to reflect that audience. So as they continue to play out dramas about class, we'll see the layoffs, the foreclosures, people living paycheck to paycheck. These are natural story lines for them."

TVSquad's Keller notes that, considering the economy's downward spiral in the last few years, there's a surprisingly lack of grittier, blue-collar fare like "Roseanne" or "All in the Family" on the air these days.

"I can see more working-class, middle-class real families making a return to TV," he said. "That kind of development will come out of these tough times."

There are already a few out there, said Tomashoff, like Jim Belushi's "According to Jim" and NBC's "Medium."

"Those families are already living paycheck to paycheck, so there's a relatability there," said Tomashoff. "Shows like that aren't going anywhere. In fact, we're likely to see more of them."

But pop culture expert Rapping sees these recession plotlines digging deeper into the existing TV landscape, into dramas like "Private Practice," but also procedurals like "Law & Order."

"Those ripped from the headlines shows will reflect whatever the headlines are saying -- and these days, it's all about the economy," she said. "Even a show like 'House,' they don't really have to go there. But they're worrying about budget cuts at the hospital and laying people off. Writers are putting in those nods to reality as if to say, 'We get it America. We know what you're going through.'"

But Rapping tempers that take with a caveat: "The networks aren't likely to broach touchy topics like health insurance," she said. "The bottom line is, it's a business. And after all, they're in the business of selling viewers to advertisers."

Reality shows, too, will get a dose of recession-related plot. "Something like a 'House Hunters' or 'Flip This House' will obviously have to adapt to recession realities. It would be really fun to see how someone like crazy Jeff Lewis from 'Flipped Out' handles a bit of comeuppance now that [the] housing boom has busted."

"But blue-collar reality shows like 'Dirty Jobs' and 'The Deadliest Catch' are doing really well," said Tomashoff. "And it's an ideal time for something like 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.' In fact, last week, Fox debuted 'Secret Millionaire,' which did much better than anyone expected. It's rich folks living like poor folks, then giving away money. That's what people want to see."

So while times may be tough, this recession could be a real boon to the broadcast business.

"There is a real opportunity for the network television here," said University of Buffalo's Rapping. "People are skimping, but the TV stays on. They want to save their money, so they're staying home and they'll be tuning in. Americans want to be entertained, but they do want to see their realities reflected on TV."