Dangle big cash, reel in big ratings

TV shows focusing on greed prove big winners for networks

April 14, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television is talking money, money, money this spring, and tens of millions of viewers are clearly listening.

From network dramas featuring get-rich-quick capers to game shows that are about nothing but a $1 million prize, Hollywood is finding that programming with essentially the same premise - go for the greed - is a big ratings winner.

NBC's Deal or No Deal, where contestants choose among briefcases with hidden money ranging from a penny to $1 million, is the most successful series on the network, drawing upward of 18 million viewers a night.

Thief, a new drama on the cable channel FX, opens with a daring bank robbery and is all about the swag - and the criminals trying to get rich on guile and guts.

Fox has a meditation on money that is racking up impressive ratings in Unan1mous. The reality show's premise is stunning in its simplicity: Take nine people, lock them in an underground bunker and don't let them out until they can unanimously agree on which one of them should receive a grand prize of $1.5 million.

"Greed is as American as piety," said Larry Mintz, associate professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland, College Park. "That's one of the elements that appears to be at work in these shows that are all about the money and have nothing to do with smarts or skill. This is the very-American, get-rich-quick, winning-lottery-ticket fantasy speaking to viewers today."

Few shows have ever been as upfront as Deal in telling the audience what they are really about: "Tonight, 26 briefcases full of money," a booming, off-screen voice intones at the start of the program. "Twenty-six beautiful women holding the cases and 26 chances for someone to win big and change their life forever."

"I promise you," host Howie Mandel tells viewers, "no crazy stunts, no trivia, no skill."

Some media observers say these shows succeed, in part, by exploiting society's economic anxiety. Shaky pensions, rising medical co-payments and gasoline prices, and seemingly endless cutbacks in the U.S. workplace can leave consumers - and TV viewers - longing for a show-me-the-suitcase-of-cash solution.

Comparing the popularity of Deal and Unan1mous with the dominance of TV quiz shows such as The $64,000 Question in the 1950s, Abe Novick, a vice president at Eisner Communications who specializes in cultural trends, said, "I think there was a similar kind of anxiety to what we're feeling today that existed in the culture in the 1950s. And I think the kind of escape and get-rich-quick promise that such shows offered then and promise now speaks directly to that kind of worry."

The 1950s are often superficially portrayed as post-World War II boom years of unrestrained economic growth, but the reality was far more complicated.

The country suffered a severe recession in 1957, and many young adults who had grown up in the Depression felt anxiety in adapting to new lifestyles based on credit and debt. Academic revisionists generally refer to the 1950s as the Age of Anxiety.

Consumers have similar economic today.

"And it can lead to a strange feeling, almost an anesthetized anxiety," Novick said, comparing nervousness about Iraq with Cold War worries of the 1950s.

The underground bunker setting of Unan1mous summons up memories of atomic bomb fallout shelters in the duck-and-cover days on the 1950s, as well as the clock-is-ticking, under-siege mentality of such post 9/11 dramas as Fox TV's 24.

"What's interesting about the '50s quiz show versus the money shows today is that the former featured people who were able to win because they knew so much. Through hard work, they had acquired a body of knowledge," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

"On Unan1mous, the skills that lead to success don't include the hard-working determination it takes to acquire a big body of knowledge needed in the '50s game shows. The skills we value now are negotiation, strategizing and survival - or, in the case of Deal, essentially just luck and willingness to take risk."

Survival, luck and willingness to take a risk are part of another hot genre of money programs, televised poker. The formula for success is much the same: the promise of seeing someone get rich quick and a large pile of money (in the form of chips) prominently on display.

When Deal debuted as a five-night midseason tryout series in December, all five nights finished among the week's Nielsen top 10.

The series, which airs at 8 tonight and is offered three nights a week by NBC, single-handedly lifted the struggling network from fourth to third place last week in overall viewership.

Airing Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. after American Idol has helped Unan1mous find an audience, but great lead-in or not, the ratings are impressive. Last week, the series was seen by 14 million people overall, making it the week's 14th-highest-rated show.

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