March 11, 2009 -- Recession television is kicking into full gear.
The economic crisis continues to find its way into storylines, as on a recent episode of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," in which pizza shop owner Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) explains her downturn in business to a neighbor thusly: "When times get tough, people do without things like pizza."
But they don't do without TV, so the networks have responded with new shows that deal directly with the ailing economy. Several have shows in development to mirror the lives of viewers watching them.
ABC recently approved two series centered on the recession. The first, "Canned," follows what happens when several 20-something friends get fired from an investment bank and discover that maybe finance wasn't the right field for them after all.
The second, as-yet unnamed series, stars "Frasier" alum Kelsey Grammer as a Wall Street exec who leaves the world of finance to play "manny" to the family he hardly knows.
At Fox, actor-writer Mike Binder ("The Upside of Anger") is developing "Two-Dollar Beer," a comedy set in blue-collar Detroit, in which he'll also star.
Shawn Ryan, the man behind gritty dramas "The Shield" and "The Unit," is shopping a comedy called "The Millionaires Club" about a group of average Joes who pool their cash for various get-rich-quick schemes.
CBS is reportedly developing "Waiting to Die," a sitcom about two guys who are content with their lives though they have little going for them.
Then there's the networks' own cost-cutting measures that will result in programming shifts. When Jay Leno moves to 10 p.m. on NBC, the network will likely save millions of dollars by replacing dramas at $3 million an episode with his show, each of which is expected to cost less than $2 million.
Leno himself is reaching out to recession-effected viewers. He announced Monday that he'll host a free show April 7 at Michigan's Palace of Auburn Hills, in the suburbs of Detroit. Aimed at "anybody out of work in Detroit," attendees only have to say they are unemployed to get tickets to the event.
Recession TV Revives Old Trend
It's not the first time recession realities have found a place on the small screen. The 1970s Norman Lear-inspired recession realism of shows like "All in the Family," "Good Times" and "One Day at a Time" paved the way for the current crop of pilots.
"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."
Craig Tomashoff, TV Guide's executive editor, 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 the current economic climate, people have really rejected it.
"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."
Escapist Fare Not Going Away
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, says 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, Keller notes, it will also be tough for TV execs to work these downbeat story lines into comedic fare like "The Office."
"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."
Tomashoff suggested the first place viewers will really see recession realities seeping into stories will be on their favorite soap operas. In fact, reps from ABC affirmed recession-related plots, like company slowdowns and job-hunting issues would crop up 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."
Recession Plots Suited to Procedurals, Reality TV
Rapping sees recession plotlines finding a home in 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 plots. MTV's "True Life," which produces hour-long documentaries on tough topics like eating disorders and drug problems, recently put out a casting call for a show potentially called "I Can't Afford My Lifestyle," looking for teens and 20-somethings who can't fund their extravagant habits in the wake of the recession.
"Something like a 'House Hunters' or 'Flip This House' will obviously have to adapt to recession realities," Rapping said. "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.'"
"Case in point: Last week, Fox debuted 'Secret Millionaire,' which did much better than anyone expected," Tomashoff added. "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 network television here," said 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."