How Will Fall TV Reflect the Great Recession?

Rash Report: When It Comes to Tough Times, Prime Time Is a Canary in a Coal Mine

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Some Labor Day coming up. The unemployment rate announced this morning was 9.7%, with economists calling the shedding of 216,000 jobs -- fewer than previous months -- "good news." The woeful worker data and Labor Day come just before the start of the new fall TV season. As always, some interesting shows will air. But even more interesting will be what viewers will watch, and what that says about how pop culture connects with the Great Recession.

Archie Bunker elevates the working man.
Archie Bunker elevates the working man.
Previous economic downturns have been TV Rorschach tests. The stagflation '70s, for instance, brought a series of sitcoms that commiserated with and elevated the working man. While he may be best remembered for his red neck, the blue-collar bona fides of Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) made him a much more accessible and sympathetic character than perhaps the "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear originally intended.

Two other sitcoms, "Sanford and Son," about father and son salvage workers, and "Chico and the Man," about the generation gap between two garage mechanics, furthered the trend. And the sour economy even inspired a sweet drama, although "The Waltons" took place during the Hoover, not Carter, administration.

The economy actually got worse in the early '80s. But the outlook was brighter, as the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan and the beginning of a bull market played out in prime-time soaps that seemingly could have been shot on the Reagan ranch, such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty." One of them, "Falcon Crest," even starred the Gipper's first wife, Jane Wyman.

Then, in the early '90s, just as the Cold War ended, a hot war with Iraq began and the economy froze. Back came the working man. But instead of celebrating his dignity, TV denigrated him, as sad sack Al Bundy worked his dead-end, soul-deadening shoe-salesman job on "Married with Children" and the Connors played the anti-Waltons on "Roseanne." But another early-'90s sitcom, "Home Improvement," sent a contrarian cultural message, and was perhaps a precursor to the housing bubble that's burst so badly this decade.

Of course, few, including Fed heads Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, saw that coming. So maybe network executives shouldn't feel so bad that they didn't either. So just before the global economy nearly entered a worldwide depression, it instead was moneyed Manhattan and Manhattan Beach that seemed to transfix TV, with shows such as "Dirty Sexy Money," "Big Shots," "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" that didn't reflect the Darwinian economy in which most viewers found themselves.

So now comes the new season, which may be both an economic and cultural canary in a coal mine. It kicks off with a network whose viewers may be hit hardest by these hard times, young adults. But they wouldn't know it watching the CW, as a remade "Melrose Place" and "The Beautiful Life" are joining the pretty and the petty on "Gossip Girl" and "90210."

Maybe they know something their parents don't, because the parents are more likely to be watching what passes as a look at Middle America, including ABC's "The Middle," the sitcom that most directly reflects recessionary times and how they impact network TV's viewing base. But more shows make it seem like the networks are hedging their bets. ABC's "Hank," for instance, gets to play it both ways, as Kelsey Grammar gets to reprise a role he plays so well, this time evoking a Bear Stearns exec who got hit by the bear market. So does Fox's "Brothers," whose version of hard times is a hard-hitting football player who has to move back home after he mismanages his millions.

And while NBC's dramas aren't dramatically different from the ensembles that took place in police precincts, law firms and hospitals, the character focus is. "We want to celebrate the working class that will be driving the American recovery," former NBC Entertainment co-Chairman Ben Silverman told me after the network's "in front" presentation. "We're downstairs with the nurses of 'Mercy' and not upstairs with the doctors," he said. "We're with the beat cops of 'Southland,' and not with the homicide detectives."

But in relative terms, nurses, rescue workers and police officers are steady, stable jobs in today's economy. Few shows are with the working poor -- except, at least in the pilot, one: CBS's "Undercover Boss." While it's tough to tell if they will find people as compelling as the garbage haulers and the disguised Waste Management executive in the first episode, some of the scenes of workers' gratitude at being recognized for thankless jobs is some of the most emotionally resonant TV seen during this Great Recession.

But "Undercover Boss" won't make its debut until mid-season. What's watched this fall, however, may set the TV tonality if it connects, or if viewers try to connect with easy escapism of other reality shows, as they have this summer.

As for the summer season, it's winding down, with no new scripted hits. Indeed, in a reflection of today's bad employment report, it seems no one was working last night, as all but one show on network TV was a rerun.

That one show, the night's highest-rated, was CBS's reality hit "Big Brother," which delivered a 2.7/9 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, leading CBS to an overall first place 2.5/8. And with the show's premise being contestants kept together in a house, unless they fell for one of those work-from-home-get-rich-quick schemes, they're jobless too.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Ho-hum. More celebrities and keen competition. But wait! Not summer reality shows but the stars courtside watching the world's greatest tennis players at the U.S. Open, on ESPN 2.
Saturday: College football kicks off, including ABC's prime-time presentation of Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, and will seemingly kick everything else off the screen.
Sunday: It's the last weekend of the summer. So see a summer popcorn movie, albeit at home, with Fox's "Spider-Man 2."
Monday: It's Labor Day. Rent "Norma Rae" or "On the Waterfront."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Really low ratings, as the last big weekend of summer (and a lot of repeats) gets viewers off the couch.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

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