TV REVIEW : ‘Business of Banking’ Earns PBS Interest

Times Staff Writer

Not since the Depression era have Americans seen so much serious trouble within their banking industry. Record numbers of banks failed in 1987 and again in 1988. The savings and loan industry is plagued by so many brain-dead institutions and such inept regulation that an infusion of tax dollars is almost inevitable.

The reasons behind this turmoil are not solely economic. Rather, a complex set of factors spawned by deregulation and the inextricable linking of world economies has unleashed a torrent of change and thrown the industry into virtual chaos.

The difficulties in dealing with these changes and their profound effect on our lives are often lost in the headlines and evening newscasts about bank failures and savings and loan bailouts. So the three-part series that begins airing on public television tonight provides a welcome primer on how the banking industry works and too often does not work these days.

“Money in America: The Business of Banking” was produced for PBS by KQED-TV in San Francisco and will air on consecutive Tuesday nights (9 p.m. on Channel 24, 10 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15). It is ably hosted by Sylvia Chase, a veteran TV journalist.


Even in these volatile times, a subject as dry as banking holds many pitfalls for the television translator. The two biggest dangers are opposite sides of the same coin: That television would either oversimplify to the point of meaninglessness or fail to explain enough, leaving the point equally meaningless.

People involved in banking and other expert observers will find nothing startling and little new in these hourlong programs. However, laymen who are concerned and confused about the condition of the nation’s banking system and its potential impact on their lives will find the answers to all their questions here, delivered in clear and, if not riveting, easily understood terms. Even the apparently distant problem of Third World debt is depicted in a way that should hold the attention of the average public-television viewer, if not the average television viewer.

Much of the material originates far closer to home. California, with four of the nation’s biggest banks and some of its sickest thrifts, is the locale for many of the cases used to illustrate the good and the bad of banking today. And that is fitting, because financing for the series was squeezed out of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco as a part of the settlement of a consumer lawsuit accusing the bank of overcharging thousands of customers who bounced checks.

The premiere episode chronicles the dramatic changes in banking during the last 50 years and shows how some innovative institutions are trying to survive them. One segment shows how an Outward Bound-type of fitness school is used to instill teamwork in executives of Bank One, a pioneering bank in Columbus, Ohio.

Many banks have found another means for survival in these changing times: They are firing long-time employees and closing branches in poor neighborhoods that can’t move enough “product.” A lot of angry people lash out at this flawed system, and bankers offer the lame excuse that they are not public utilities, but businesses like any other.

The second and third installments delve into the factors driving banks and thrifts into failure and eroding public confidence in the financial system, and tackle some of the public policy issues confronting the industry, such as how to remove the yoke of foreign debt that is sapping the strength of developing countries.

Real solutions are as elusive in “Money in America” as they are in real life, but a lot of complex questions get answered in terms that everyone can and should understand.