Economy, Television and the American Family

In tough economic times, what does what you watch say about you?

Oct. 11, 2008 — -- The country is facing what is perceived as the most pivotal presidential election in memory, and millions of Americans are worried about their financial futures.

But you would not know it by watching television.

With prime-time television dominated by shows like "Dirty Sexy Money," "The Hills" and "Gossip Girl," American viewers seem more interested in the lives of the rich and famous than those whose lives are more closely related to their own.

"People are really worn out and life is getting harder and harder at a very rapid pace in this country," Dorian Traube, assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told "Good Morning America." "So that escapism, when people can't afford to seek entertainment anywhere else but by sitting on their sofa, is actually very important."

But this is not the first time America has experience tough times and, often, television reflected the struggle, rather than avoiding it.

Back in the '70s, when cars lined up around the block to get rationed gas, people came home to watch Archie Bunker on the tube. Sitcom story lines reflected the real-life struggles of American families.

"Sanford and Son" was set in a junkyard. In "Good Times," the family always stayed just one step ahead of debt collectors. Even for the singles set, "Laverne and Shirley" seemed to just scrape by.

In the '80s, when the economy took another dive, the average American family was back in the prime-time spotlight.

"When you think about the last economic crisis, there were still shows like 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,'" Traube said, referring to shows more centered on the financially well off. "But people embraced them as soap operas. It was more well-balanced viewing. From eight to nine you watched the show about middle Americans and then from nine to ten you watched the show about the wealthy oil barons."

Today, however, the balance is largely gone.

"The Cosbys are gone. Roseanne is gone. All those relatable families are gone," Traube said.

But Traube does not necessarily believe such escapism is harmful.

"I don't think the fact that television doesn't reflect reality is inherently bad," she said.

Television executives said that in a hyper-competitive market with hundreds of channels and thousands of choices, it is just easier to market a show about hip, single young people whose problems are sexier than grocery shopping or household squabbles.

In the end, what Americans watch may be less important than why they watch, Traube said.

"It serves a great purpose to allow people to sit down and have a break from life."