The recession catches up to reality TV

A new batch of reality shows is facing up to the fact we live in difficult times
Lose everything, find a fairy jobmother
GPhoto Illustration by Lauren Cattermole/Maclean's

Network executives think we want escapism in scripted TV: “Strategically,” ABC president Paul Lee told critics, “these are times when fairy tales play strongly.” But don’t tell that to the creators of reality shows.

The cheapest, quickest profit-making shows on television are facing up to the fact that we live in depressing times. In addition to the usual shows about weddings and failed relationships, cable networks have spent the last two years developing programs like Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn, the stories of pawnshops and the people who have to sell their stuff there. If you’d prefer to watch people buy things instead of selling them, Extreme Couponing has become a hit by featuring shoppers who try to get all the discounts they can, even if it means they have to stockpile detergent and toilet paper. Viewers may not be interested in escaping into a world of wealth and beauty; Simon Lloyd, CEO of reality-show producer Cineflix, told Maclean’s that today’s audiences “want to get value for money.”

The reality shows of the ’00s were often as escapist as today’s scripted shows, especially when it came to housing: Flip This House and its cousins told us there was a fortune to be made, while makeover shows emphasized the dream of living well. But today, because many people have less outsized ambitions, reality producers have moved to taking on more realistic dreams. The most popular reality sub-genre at the moment is the hoarder show, where the best anyone can do is move out of squalor.

Other recent shows acknowledge that we’ve given up hoping the future will be better than the past. In the Cineflix show American Pickers, and its spinoff Canadian Pickers, two men come into people’s homes and try to find valuable antiques among the old junk. Lloyd says that part of the appeal is that “a lot of things that are being bought and sold are from an era when times were good. There’s very much an element of nostalgia there. People aren’t buying things from the 1930s.”

Shows about getting rich quick have either died out or been forced to adapt to the new world. Flipping Out, finishing up its fifth season with solid ratings, began in 2007 as part of the house-flipping genre, with the star, Jeff Lewis, trying to make a fortune. After the housing market collapsed, we saw Lewis cut back his business and take on extra duties to stay afloat. Another recession-era take on house flipping, Flip Men, has its stars buying problematic homes at today’s rock-bottom prices; Lloyd’s company has one called The Unsellables about houses that can’t sell. “That was very much developed in relation to the credit crunch.”

All these shows taken together could seem depressing, but they certainly can’t be accused of being out of step with the times, and timeliness equals profitability. When Hayley Taylor created a North American version of her show The Fairy Jobmother, where she helps unemployed people find jobs, she chirped to Reuters that the timing was “absolutely perfect.” And unlike most modern scripted shows, viewers can go to these reality shows to get some direct engagement with current issues. Most scriptwriters haven’t noticed that, as CNN’s Paul R. La Monica wrote, “demand for storage and apartments is increasing even as rental rates go up.” But reality shows have noticed: Storage Wars, about what happens to people’s storage units after they don’t pay the rent, is on its way to becoming one of the defining shows of the new era.

There are a few scripted producers who have taken the hint and started to incorporate some of this material into their work. Michael Patrick King, who produced the boom-times show Sex and the City, has returned with 2 Broke Girls, which announces its intention in the title, though it’s been mocked for its inaccurate understanding of what it means to be poor. Two other recent comedies, The Middle and Raising Hope, focus on lower middle-class families that sometimes have to think carefully about their expenses. It may take a while, but the rest of the industry may start following reality TV’s lead in dealing with the bad financial situation. If economic forecasts are right, they’ll have plenty of time to catch up.