Seeing wealth is now a turn-off

Semuels is a Times staff writer.

It had the makings of reality-television gold.

The third season of “Wall Street Warriors” started filming this spring, as the financial sector’s meltdown accelerated. The show’s camera crews captured the pain and anger of the biggest stock market crash in decades.

But right now, the show doesn’t have an audience.

“Wall Street Warriors” was shot for Mojo HD, a high-definition cable channel that’s shutting down Monday, leaving the reality series without a home. Its producers are shopping the show to other networks, with no takers so far.

Its problem: Americans are too depressed about their own finances to entertain themselves by watching shows about money, according to industry executives and academics.


“People don’t want to come home at the end of the day and have more bad news about their money,” said Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University. “They don’t want to see the Enron scandal, they don’t want to see CEOs getting away with it.”

Television ratings reflect that trend. ABC announced last week that it wasn’t ordering new episodes for “Dirty Sexy Money,” a show about a wealthy and unscrupulous New York family. In mid-November, only about 3.6 million viewers tuned in to watch NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle,” a show about three high-powered New Yorkers, which is almost half the number who tuned in when the show began.

And Bravo’s “First Class All the Way,” a show about extremely rich people going on very posh vacations, was watched by 319,000 people in its premiere episode.

Hollywood publication Variety, which reviewed the show, chided Bravo for being “tone-deaf -- pushing $1,000-a-night hotels and caviar dreams to a nation in the throes of 401(k) nightmares.”

“People don’t want to watch rich people whine,” said Rick Kushman, television columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

In “Lipstick Jungle,” for example, a character played by Brooke Shields wars with a former nanny who threatens to write a tell-all book. “A normal person would be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Kushman said.

Viewers may have been similarly annoyed by some of the early episodes of “Wall Street Warriors,” which premiered in October 2006. One featured bankers talking about how “life is good” and boasting in expletive-filled language of waking up every morning with the expectation of making piles of money.

Subsequent episodes featured men in finance flying on private jets, pitching to wealthy clients on yachts in the Caribbean and making and losing tens of thousands of dollars in the span of a few minutes.

As the financial crisis deepened after filming of the third season began in April, the reality-TV drama intensified.

“People are intrigued watching a train wreck,” said Sean Skelton, the show’s director and co-producer. “I know I’ve been way more interested in filming my characters this year because it feels like history in the making.”

Wall Street’s devastation took a starring role. Unaired episodes feature their subjects running into friends who left banking to work as gym teachers when their companies folded and hearing stories about hedge fund managers committing suicide after losing millions.

“When people are killing themselves, it’s real drama,” Skelton said.

On the day Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson announced the $700-billion Wall Street bailout, Tony Battista, who is featured in the third season, was confronted by a protester wearing a pig nose. Battista was wearing a suit, so they assumed he was a broker and demanded to know why all the fat cats were getting bonuses.

“He was saying it to me personally, as if I had pulled the strings myself,” recalled Battista, who teaches people how to trade online for Web brokerage Think or Swim.

The show also captured Phil and Ken Brisard, who own a global equity wealth management company, sneaking out the back exit of their building near the New York Stock Exchange to avoid protesters.

Good drama, yes, but it may not appeal to viewers already reeling from losses to their pension plans and stock market accounts.

Most Wall Street characters aren’t as sympathetic as, say, a cancer patient who has lost his house in a hurricane and gets an extreme home makeover from Ty Pennington. The Brisard brothers recently moved into a bigger office because they figured out how to earn money for their clients even as the stock market went south.

“There will be some people watching this who are upset -- maybe they were wiped out,” Ken Brisard said in an interview. “But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Networks are being more cautious about economy-themed programming that could seem insensitive. Bravo delayed airing the second season of “Million Dollar Listing,” a show about real estate agents selling multimillion-dollar homes in Southern California, because the real estate market was so bad, said Frances Berwick, executive vice president and general manager of Bravo Media. It also delayed the start of “First Class All the Way.”

And in what could be a sign of shows about the rich becoming socially conscious, MTV earlier this year premiered “Exiled!,” a show featuring wealthy teenagers previously seen on “My Super Sweet 16” (a show about opulent birthday bashes) who are sent to developing countries to experience life without the plush amenities to which they’re well accustomed.

Still, Bravo’s Berwick said she wasn’t concerned that viewers would eschew shows about wealth or money.

“People watch these shows for a high degree of escapism,” she said. “They want to see something that’s entertaining, engaging and takes them out of their own lives.”

Scott Gill, a producer of “Wall Street Warriors,” says he thinks the show’s drama will attract viewers and buyers, especially because this season “captured history.” Gill says he has had some interest from different networks but hasn’t closed a deal in the two months since Mojo announced it was shutting its doors. A Mojo spokeswoman said the channel was going dark because its parent company, In Demand Networks, decided there wasn’t a need for it because many other HD channels are available.

If the show doesn’t go on, it could be because it’s about Wall Street and money at a time when people don’t want to think about Wall Street.

Then again, a good show is a good show. Rob Owen, TV critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said people will watch a show about pretty much anything -- morally bereft cartoon characters, neurotic New Yorkers doing absolutely nothing, a group of friends sitting around an apartment -- if it’s entertaining.

“It’s all about the show, and not anything more than that,” he said.