Coming Soon to Your Flat Screen: Layoff TV

Networks are betting audiences will want more down-to-earth fare this fall.

Last Updated: April 9, 2009 @ 6:52 PM

Watch out, “Housewives of Orange County.” Here come the “Househusbands of Hollywood.”

While escapist fare like “Fast & Furious” is drawing record numbers of moviegoers in the midst of an historic recession, an equal and opposite reaction is taking shape on the television landscape.

Coming to your flat-screen soon: layoff TV!

TV producers and network executives are betting audiences will want to see more down-to-earth shows this fall, and a slew of reality and scripted TV featuring “real” people coping with layoffs and working class life are in the works.

Employees in flailing businesses will compete to keep their jobs in Fox’s upcoming reality show "Someone’s Gotta Go." The show developed by "Big Brother" producer Endemol will feature workers deciding who will stay and who will go among themselves. (See more on "Someone’s Got to Go.")

ABC recently greenlit two recession-themed comedies: “Canned,” starring Amanda Bynes about a group of friends who all are fired on the same day, and an untitled Kelsey Grammer pilot about a Wall Street tycoon forced to stay home á la “Mr. Mom.”

Fox is investing in a pilot of actor-producer Mike Binder’s titled “Two-Dollar Beer.” Binder stars as the head of a blue-collar family in Detroit coping with layoffs in the auto industry.

Meanwhile, “The Shield’s” writer-producer Shawn Ryan is also working on "Millionaire’s Club" for Fox about a group of people who come up with get-rich-quick schemes to change their lives. (Check out the full list of layoff-era shows here.)

“On some level it is inevitable because the economy is so omnipotent in our lives that to do any kind of sitcom or drama it should be close to reality,” said Howard Rosenberg, the former Los Angeles Times TV critic and professor of television studies at University of Southern California.

”ABC ordered seven episodes of Mark Burnett’s (“Survivor”) new “Shark Tank,” in which cash-strapped entrepreneurs will compete for financing from investors.

And Fox Reality Channel will debut “Househusbands of Hollywood” in August, following five men who stay home while their entertainment-industry wives provide most of the household income.

“I think a lot of people are trying to figure out if the new economic reality demands a new TV reality,” said David Lyle, COO and general manager of Fox Reality Channel.

“One of the reasons reality TV has worked so well over the last 10 years is that it reflects what people are thinking — sometimes in an extreme way,” he continued. “When Tila Tequila dates both men and women, that brings attitudes about sexuality to the forefront. So I think that the economic situation will flavor a lot of what’s on TV.”

Although the husbands on “Househusbands’” are at home by choice and not due to a layoff, the premise reflects a growing economic reality. A dramatic 82 percent of recently laid-off workers are male, and the New York Times recently reported that women may soon dominate the work force for the first time in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, living vicariously through rich people hasn’t gone away. Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” now in its fourth season, recently scored its highest ratings for a non-finale episode, and its ratings are up 30 percent from last year. The second-season debut of its spinoff, “The Real Housewives of New York,” almost doubled the numbers of its first-season premiere.

And — in the middle of the worst housing market in history — Bravo has renewed both of its reality series about high-price realtors, “Million Dollar Listing” and “Flipping Out.”

Lyle noted that "Househusbands’"  Hollywood setting lends a tinge of glamour, but gets in touch with issues closer to reality by following men with time on their hands, and addressing universal issues about work, lifestyle and gender roles.

It isn’t the first time we’ve seen TV mirror real life.

The Wall Street crash in October 1987 and its subsequent recession affected television in a similar way. “The Cosby Show” was the top-rated show in ’87; the next year, the first season of “Roseanne” dominated the ratings alongside the upscale Huxtables, according to TV By the Numbers.

Also by the end of the ’80s, extravagant dramas like “Dynasty,” “Miami Vice” and “Falcon Crest” had been canceled in favor of shows like “The Wonder Years,” “Cops” and “The Simpsons.”

Of course, not everyone is getting on board. Paul McGuire, the CW’s senior vice president of communications, said none of the network’s six pilots in development directly relate to the recession. In fact, the network is ordering more escapist fare for its target audience, women ages 18 to 34.

The CW’s slate includes a redo of “Melrose Place” and “The Beautiful Life,” a drama from executive producer Ashton Kutcher about models in New York. “We feel good about our prospects weathering the recession, McGuire said. “People are certainly still watching TV, and advertisers are still interested in ‘Gossip,’ ‘90210,’ ‘Top Model’ and ‘One Tree Hill.’”

But even popular shows about upper-class excess will give a nod to the faltering economy. “Housewives of New York” cast member Alex McCord’s recent layoff from a graphic design firm will likely figure into the show’s next season. McCord has been blogging on the Huffington Post about her job search.

And McGuire pointed out that the extremely popular “Gossip Girl” dealt with stock-market troubles in its first season.  “Last year one of the main kids’ fathers — a Wall Street big shot — extorted money and left the country leaving his son and wife bereft,” McGuire said. “That kind of reflects the reality on Wall Street.”

“I don’t think glamour will go away; I don’t think aspirational TV will go away,” said Fox’s David Lyle. “But the aspirations will be more down to earth. I couldn’t see doing ‘My Sweet Sixteen’ now, for example. I think you’d get run out of town if you mounted an extravagant party like the ones on that show now.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be all gray sackcloth and ashes by any means. But you will find that the next seasons will reflect how relatively wealthy people are coping with a less affluent society.”
 

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