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Cover Story: Harsh Reality TV

4/13/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

"You're fired!”

That could be the catchphrase for a new reality show on the Fox broadcast network, which involves employees of troubled small businesses deciding which colleague should be laid off. Someone's Gotta Go, which is in production, features a firm in need of cost-cutting which fires — not hires — an employee based on colleague's votes.

recession TVWith the stock market in the doldrums, unemployment steadily rising and consumer confidence shaky, television is adapting. Across the TV landscape, viewers are beginning to see a new image of the U.S. consumer, reflected in ads, shows, specials and promotional campaigns.

Programs about flipping a house for a quick profit and dressing like a fashion plate are being co-opted by a new theme: living on a budget. These days, real-estate programs emphasize how to buy a home for less or, better yet, pull off a do-it-yourself renovation. Fashion series encourage discount shopping, while cooking shows tout preparing meals with fewer ingredients and stretching leftovers.

Most programmers say they must reflect — or at least acknowledge — the financial concerns and realities of their viewers, and many cable networks are eager to cater to consumers' belt-tightening.

Not everything on screen is Depression-era doom and gloom, though. Some networks have taken the opposite tack, offering escapist fare and shows about lifestyles of the famous and rich.

Cable networks say ratings for shows that reflect the tough economic times and more escapist fare are strong, indicating an appetite for both genres.

“We want to do everything we can to help people navigate these troubled waters,” said Chad Youngblood, general manager for Fine Living Network, which now identifies itself on-air by its acronym, FLN. “In times of downward pressure, when you're worried about making your mortgage and keeping your job, it is great to have a place to be entertained and informed.”

In a precipitous move, the Scripps-owned FLN last year downplayed its Fine Living moniker in favor of its initials, to appeal to a broader audience.

“The name wasn't reflecting the helpful programming we were providing,” Youngblood said. “We're certainly happy we did it, because the words 'fine living' might not be popular right now at all.”

To serve budget-minded viewers, FLN is playing up programs like new fashion series Closet Cases, which debuts April 13 and shows how to shop in your own closet for fresh wardrobe ideas, and American Shopper, which offers deals on popular products.

Other networks are similarly going for populist themes. On Saturday nights, TLC offers Deals on the Bus, chronicling bus tours to foreclosed homes. To promote low-cost cooking, Food Network is launching two shows, Sandra's Money Saving Meals, which promises to cut up to 40% off grocery bills, and Five Ingredient Fix, with recipes that call for just five ingredients (salt and pepper not included).

'GAMES FOR CHEAP BASTARDS'

Even young-male targeted G4 is tweaking its technology and video game programs, offering more TV segments on popular shows for low-cost or free gadgets and games with clever names like “Games for Cheap Bastards.”

While it is still too early to tell if the strategy is paying off — many budget-themed shows debut in April and May — some shows are gaining traction. On Style, thrifty home-makeover show Dress My Nest is averaging about 200,000 viewers for first-run episodes — nearly double Style's primetime average — according to Nielsen Media Research. WE TV's My Fair Wedding, where celebrity wedding planner David Tuter creates a lavish affair on a tight budget, is one of the network's highest rated shows, averaging 222,000 viewers among its key demo, women 18 to 49 years old, according to Nielsen.

To supplement series, producers are creating short-form content with bites of information. Online, they're adding troves more information to their Web sites for instruction and action to save bucks.

As Americans spend more time at home, cable networks are eager to grab more viewers. In first-quarter 2009, dozens of networks reported record ratings and, heading into the upfront, are pitching advertisers on relatable programs and increased viewership are selling points.

“If cable networks are able to relate to what is happening in their audience's lives, viewers will be more engaged,” said Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate.

Even in a slumping ad market, Adgate said many advertisers will support these cable networks and their shows if they share they share common goals. “Viewers are looking for ways to save money and be economical and advertisers want to be responsive too,” he added.

Advertisers, always sensitive to the budget-conscious, are selling themselves as the cheap alternative on TV ads. To entice diners, restaurant chain Applebee's is offering a bargain $20 dinner for two. In its ads, Pizza Hut urges Americans to stay home and order in its affordable spreads. Big-box retailers from Home Depot to Wal-Mart bombard consumers with ads for specials and price cuts.

No network may be better positioned to cash in on the troubled economy than Scripps' DIY (Do It Yourself) channel. The network's entire schedule reads like a budget-living guide, including new shows Bathtastic (easy and cheap bathroom redos) and $10,000 in Your Hand (ways to shave thousands off your bids from contractors.

“We haven't had to adapt at all,” said general manager Kathleen Finch. “The environment has changed and suddenly the programming we've always done is more relevant.”

To be more relevant, some returning shows are being tweaked. On TLC, the next season of Flip That House will shift from buying houses low and selling high to opportunities for first-time buyers. Fashion-makeover show What Not to Wear, in its seventh season, is now spotlighting more affordable stores and ideas to dress-for-less.

ENOUGH REALITY — MORE FANTASY

While some viewers may look for relatable stories and actionable tips in nonfiction programs, others tune in for a passive, entertaining experience.

Network executives say information is very important, but so is aspiration and escapism. There is a danger in offering too much reality, not enough fantasy.

“No matter what the economic situation is like, shows will always resonate, as long as there are relatable elements to viewers' lives and interesting personalities,” said Bravo general manager Frances Berwick.

For example, Berwick said, Bravo's popular shows include such high-end names as Million Dollar Listing, about hard-charging real estate agents in posh Hollywood and Malibu, Calif., and Millionaire Matchmaker, a dating show about wealthy men and women. What draws viewers in, she said, are the compelling characters, from the competitive agents to Millionaire's quirky matchmaker, Patty Stanger.

“Wealth is not a character in our shows. It is often the backdrop, but not a central theme and that's why these shows work,” she said.

Bravo's ratings are higher than ever, said Berwick, which indicates to her that viewers are still enjoying the high-end shows more than ever — rather than getting offended or alienated.

Even so, even Bravo is trying to be sensitive to viewers' financial situations. For example, as it markets a new season of Millionaire Matchmaker, Bravo is spotlighting the matchmaker Stanger, rather than the millionaires' toys and lavish first dates. “We are much less focused on private jets and speed boats,” Berwick said.

Similarly, WE TV is firmly committed to programs on weddings, both lavish and budget. It currently offers more than a half-dozen bridal themed shows. Some, like Platinum Wedding, are squarely high-end.

Senior vice president of programming Steve Cheskin said ratings for the wedding shows continue to grow. “Yes, we are all faced with the economic difficulties every day, but at same time, some people want to escape into another world that maybe they can't afford,” he said.

In the real-estate genre, some critics say cable programmers were irresponsible in dangling high-end homes, pricey renovations and quick-flip strategies in front of viewers. But network executives are careful to point out they reflect good times and bad. HGTV, for example, shows renovations that have busted budgets and projects to flip houses that didn't command higher prices.

“We are very practical in our approach in showing both the upside and downside of investments you'd make in your home,” said HGTV senior vice president of programming Freddy James.

ECONOMY AS MAIN CHARACTER

The economy emerged as a central theme in programming and development late last fall, network executives said. By holiday season, it was painfully clear the recession had deepened and programmers became even more vigilant about their shows' timeliness and sensitivity.

“The notion that life should be affordable has been in our shows for some time, it is just more important and more relevant now,” said Suzanne Kolb, chief marketing officer for Comcast-owned E! and Style.

“Whether you are a cable programming executive or working at McDonald's, you had to respect the shift occurring,” said Eileen O'Neill, general manager of Discovery Networks-owned TLC. “The economy worked its way into the development process and became a content filter.”

Under the best circumstances, it takes about three months to get a program through development, into production and on the air, network executives said. So ideas now under consideration could hit the screen by mid-summer. Some network executives said they have increased the number of thrift-minded shows in development and tamped down the highly aspirational fare.

TLC's O'Neill said the network has reduced the number of aspirational shows in development, but has not cast them aside. “It is a tricky decision, trying to balance relatability of programming with what TV does so well — escapism,” she said.

When the economy eventually recovers, networks said they don't want to be caught flat-footed with too much economical programming. Cable networks rely heavily on their libraries and repeating programming and don't want programs to seem dated.

“These programs could be passé in another year or two when economy bounces back,” said Horizon's Adgate.

While producing a TV series can take months, cable networks can move much more quickly with short-form spots for TV and new features added to their Web sites. Quick interstitials on-air have become an extremely popular means of delivering budget tips. Since Christmas, more than a half-dozen networks have debuted these short-form series, which typically run less than 30 seconds and are independent of advertising.

RECESSIONISTAS

NBC Universal's Oxygen doesn't have shows on air specifically targeting the “recessionista” — a trendy term for budget-minded women who are still interested in style — but does offer some cost-saving ideas. The network promotes a weekly “Big Night In” movie night, encouraging viewers to stay home with friends.

Oxygen also offers a series of short vignettes on-air, billed “Out Loud” segments, promoting low-cost fun, such as ways to entertain at home. “You don't necessarily have to have less fun, but you can be budget-conscious,” said general manager Jason Klarman.

On the Style network, 30-second spots titled “Style Spree” promote the newest deals and steals for fashion lovers. HGTV's spin is called “Home Economics,” with practical items on home ownership, from an easy renovation to getting a home inspection.

“We can provide immediate information to our viewers and get it on the air quickly,” says HGTV's James.

Online, networks can dig even deeper. Style has a section called “Deals and Steals” updated daily with bargains for shoppers. On Food Networks' Money Saving Meals, host Sandra Lee will drive viewers to the Web site by suggesting two ideas for leftovers, one unveiled on-air and a second online.

As the country's economic woes continue, cable executives say they expect even more budget-minded programming to get on their channels.

“There will always be people that want to improve their world, their appearance and their home and enjoy entertaining,” said Style's Kolb. “Just because they have less money doesn't mean they are less interesting in updating their world.”

Scenes from a recession
... joined by marketers and advertisers.

SOURCE: Multichannel News research
SOURCES: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, RealtyTrac, N.Y. Stock Exchange
As the economic crisis continues ...
Unemployment rose to 8.5% in March, with 13.2 million Americans out of work
Foreclosures filings climbed almost 30% in February, to 290,631 properties in foreclosure, compared to Feb. 2008.
On March 9, the Dow Industrial Average hit a 12-year low.
... nets offer shows to reflect hard times ...
Food Network's Five Ingredient Fix offers recipes with minimal ingredients, and Money Saving Meals gives low-cost dinner ideas.
HGTV's Bang for Your Buck examines three families' home renovations to find wasted dollars and best deals.
Planet Green's Wa$ted demonstrates conserving energy and water to save thousands of dollars.
... joined by marketers and advertisers.
Oxygen's “Big Night In” urges young women to stay in and watch a theatrical movie.
In TV ads, Korean carmaker Hyundai touts a plan allowing car buyers who lose their jobs within a year to return the vehicle. Ford and GM have similar job loss programs.
In marketing dating showMillionaire Matchmaker, Bravo tones down posh lifestyles and plays up characters.

 

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April