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When it comes to ratings, greed really is good

April 19, 2006|David Zurawik | Baltimore Sun

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

Whether it's network dramas featuring get-rich-quick capers or 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," in which 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 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 also has a meditation on money that is racking up impressive ratings in "Unan1mous." The reality TV 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 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 earnestly tells viewers, "no crazy stunts, no trivia, no skill."

But some media observers say these shows succeed, in part, by exploiting the economic anxiety in society today. Shaky pensions, mounting medical co-payments, rising gas prices and seemingly endless downsizing in the American workplace can leave consumers -- and TV viewers -- longing for a show-me-the-suitcase-of-cash solution.

Comparing the popularity of "Deal" and "Unan1mous" to the dominance of TV quiz shows like "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."

Although the 1950s are often portrayed as post-World War II boom years, the reality was far more complicated. The country suffered a stiff recession in 1957, and many young adults who grew up in the Great Depression felt anxiety in adapting to new lifestyles based on credit and debt. In fact, academic revisionists, in general, now refer to the 1950s as the Age of Anxiety.

Similar economic jitters are felt by consumers today: "And it can lead to a strange feeling -- almost an anesthetized anxiety," Novick said, further comparing current nervousness about Iraq with Cold War worries of the 1950s.

Survival, luck and willingness to take a risk are part and parcel of another hot genre of money programs -- televised games of 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 Nielsen's Top 10 shows for the week.

The series is now being offered three nights a week by NBC, and it single-handedly lifted the struggling network from fourth to third place in overall viewership.

"What these shows do -- 'Deal or No Deal,' 'Unan1mous' and the syndicated 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' -- is take the old American dream that used to take a generation or two to achieve, and they compress it to an episode or two," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

"That is what's so satisfying about 'Deal' or 'Millionaire,' the contestants go up there with virtually nothing and they metaphorically go through the whole Horatio Alger climb in an episode or two. And we experience it vicariously. It's television giving you the American dream without all the boring stuff about hard work."

J.D. Roth, co-executive producer of "Unan1mous," says series like his with a prominently displayed pot of gold offer a fantasy of escape in the face of worrisome economic realities: "What makes people part of it [the show] is thinking, 'That could be me. I could be in that bunker with $1.5 million on the table,' " he said.

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