In November 2004, I was at a retreat in Santa Barbara with my American development team toying with a new television concept we called “Live Your Life For Half The Price”. We had a vague feeling that average Americans were uneasy about their levels of personal debt, and about the baggage of other liabilities they were carrying. We wanted to find out what would happen if people tried to live their lives a different way. I can’t put my finger on why we felt this might make a good subject for an entertainment series, or why anyone would be remotely interested in watching it. It was, on the face of it, a pretty gloomy notion, which ran counter to the current trend for shows about property, home improvements, cooking, or becoming a pop star.
Inventing new television formats is all about finding the next big thing. You get a hunch, a little glow of inspiration, which you try to justify by finding evidence elsewhere in popular culture – a song or a fashion style or an article in an obscure publication. I imagine fashion designers must go through the same process: you sense that pink will be the new black, but have no idea if the public will start wearing it. In the early 90’s I sensed an approaching wave of nostalgia (obvious, really, considering the approaching Millennium), so I wrote a quiz show called “Today’s The Day”; Martyn Lewis hosted it every afternoon for seven years on BBC2; then in 1995 I sensed that technology was becoming cool so I developed Robot Wars; it took three years to sell to a network, but eventually it became a worldwide hit, spawning a host of other techie shows like Scrapheap Challenge and Monster Garage. But doing a show that effectively said “capitalism has gone too far, let’s get back to basics”, and in America? How was I ever going to sell this?
I asked our junior researcher to dig up some facts. Was this strange hunch about financial instability some misplaced gut feeling, or was there anything tangible? For years, television and newspapers had been inundated with adverts persuading people to consolidate credit card debts by increasing their mortgages. Now credit card companies were responding by offering people more and more credit. Had people really overstepped the mark?
It took the researcher just a couple hours to find the answer. He dug up a report that revealed that 36% of all Americans were in debt over their heads. This was defined as having more than $10,000 of debt with an income of less than $25,000. And that was just credit card debt. “There’s more”, said the researcher. “Apparently 2% of all Americans are going to lose their homes and 1% will go bankrupt. Next year and every year.” In the 90’s people earned more than they spent; now credit cards were turning the entire social economy on its head.
I looked at him, incredulously. “That’s absurd”, I said. If the figures were even close, the effect on the economy would be seismic. We checked and double-checked. The facts were there, in black and white. The following week the New York Times published an article about how credit card debt was spiraling out of control. Then in December there was a similar report on Fox News. We knew we were on to something.
The series was never made. “Too depressing”, said the networks. Shame, really; right now it would be a sure-fire hit. But I guess in 2004 it would have been dismissed as naïve anti-capitalist invention.
But if it took my researcher, who was a game show developer, not an economist, just two hours to find the terrifying truth about how society and our banking system was heading for the rocks, why has it taken our governments four years to do something about it?