Tuning in to Hard Times Television: If programming mirrors life in America, what are we to make of 'Debt,' a game show that sends its luckiest players home with nothing?

June 23, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A young woman with a worried look on her face is seated at a desk piled high with envelopes.

A few ominous notes, like those signaling the approach of the shark in "Jaws," are sounded.

"Are you drowning in a sea of bills?" a deep, male voice asks, sounding as if it is coming from the sky.

The woman nervously looks from side to side and then nods her head as the desk starts to quake.

"Then it's time to play 'Debt,' " the voice says excitedly, "the game show where three debt-laden Americans just like you compete to have us pay off all their bills and go home with nothing!"

Play "Debt"? Go home with nothing?

That's the opening of a game show that debuted this month on the Lifetime cable channel, and, if it sounds different, that's because it is. The difference in "Debt" is striking enough not only to raise questions about why we watch game shows, but also about the economy itself and a growing number of television messages from other shows these days, which also seem to be at odds with the cheery outlook emanating from Wall Street.

Is television trying to tell us something about how things look from the bottom-up for people worried about not being able to pay their bills or losing their jobs?

Or, is television merely doing its top-down work on behalf of the powers that be with such shows, engaging viewers by addressing their anxiety only to reassure them that all is well with the system and better times are ahead for them?

Any discussion about whether "Debt" is some sort of a gut-check on middle-class anxiety or just another game show has to start with its lack of prizes.

"Television delivers audiences to advertisers by celebrating consumption, not only in commercial breaks but in the programs themselves," says Dr. Douglas Gomery, media economist at the University of Maryland College Park.

And no genre glorifies the goods like game shows, which become virtual nonstop commercials for consumption through their constant showcasing of prizes, according to Dr. John Fiske the University of Wisconsin.

"The commercial interests behind quiz shows press to have their goods displayed to an audience of millions -- for them, quiz shows are the cheapest television commercial possible," Fiske says in his book, "Television Culture."

"There is a sense in which the prizes become the stars, and the visual climax of many a show is provided by the camera luxuriating amongst the glittering, brightly lit prizes," Fiske adds.

So how can a game show that not only lacks prizes but also constantly reminds viewers of the financial trouble they could get into through consumption ever hope to be successful? Is it an anti-game show?

Anxiety in America

Andrew J. Golder, senior producer of "Debt," says his show is an attempt to "tap into growing anxiety out there in America" about consumer debt, as well as "the powerful wish fulfillment" to escape it.

With such debt at its highest level in a decade and credit-card delinquencies hitting a 15-year high, according to the American Banking Association, maybe Golder and his bosses at Disney's Buena Vista production company (makers of the show) are onto something.

Some pop-culture analysts think the producers have tapped into something important happening in society. They say the show is part of a downsizing of the American Dream taking place in the minds of some viewers, which is being reflected in more and more television programs.

"This is what's happened to the American Dream, right? Forget even thinking about getting rich and winning big prizes anymore, I just want to try and get even, to get back to zero," says Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who writes about television for the Journal of Popular Culture.

Variations on the theme of the incredible shrinking American Dream have been sounded loud and fairly clear in recent months on television -- particularly in season-ending episodes of prime-time network series that dealt with corporate downsizing and the upheavals they cause in family, friendships and finances.

Layoffs or fear of job loss figured in season finales on such popular sitcoms as CBS' "Murphy Brown" and ABC's "Grace Under Fire" and "The Drew Carey Show" last month. In happier times, weddings and births used to be the big event in such "sweeps" episodes.

Harder times will be explored in drama this fall. The Showtime cable channel recently finished filming "Hidden in America," a movie produced by Jeff Bridges starring Beau Bridges and Bruce Davison. Showtime describes the film as the "chronicle of a hard-working family man who finds himself struggling to feed his children." It will air in the next major sweeps month of November.

In a similar vein, CBS is touting its new weekly series, "Promised Land," which will star Gerald McRaney as the "hard-working head of a family who suddenly loses his job and is forced to live on the road with his wife and children." The series, which is made by the producers of "Touched by an Angel," will air Tuesday nights at 8 starting in September.

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