Living in the red


BOSTON -- And you thought we had maxed out on shamelessness. That sometime during the early 1990s, someone on a tabloid TV show about a kinky, cross-dressing affair with a best friend's Rottweiler had crossed the last frontier. Finally, we had let it all hang out.

Well, me too. In fact, by the time the story of the sex worker and the spinmeister came along, there was more public entertainment than private embarrassment. None of the parties seemed to be especially scandalized by this scandal.

On "Hard Copy," which paid Sherry Rowlands somewhat more than her usual hourly wage, the hooker held the high ground. In Time magazine, Dick Morris and his wife Eileen McGann posed for a portrait suggesting that Sherry was barely a blip in their marital bliss.

But just a few cable channels away from "Hard Copy," a new blow was being struck for shamelessness. This time the once-forbidden topic for television wasn't sex. It was money. The former sin wasn't infidelity. It was debt.

This summer's hip new quiz show on Lifetime is named after our latest national fad: "Debt." A cheery young woman named Melanie tells the world why she is in the red for $7,223. Because, she chirped, "the world has too many nice shoes."

In this quiz show, the debtors may be down at the heels, but they are relentlessly upbeat. The host is alternately described as "The Crown Prince of Credit" and "The Duke of Debt." The questions are cultural trivia for the Generation Insolvent.

This is a contest in which "three debt-laden Americans just like you compete to have us pay off all their bills and go home with NOTHING." It is, in short, the first quiz show to promise nothing.

The prizes come first

"Debt" is television for our times. As the producer Andrew Golder says, the old quiz shows were losing their point. The prizes became passe.

"Once it was a new thing to get a washer or dryer. Now people already have the prizes. They bought them on credit cards," says Mr. Golder. "What they need is help paying off the credit cards."

It is worth noting that the 35-year-old Mr. Golder is the son of a banker. He recognizes the show would never have worked in the days when "debt was a fate worse than death." They wouldn't have had hundreds of contestants eager to tell their story in red ink. Nor would it have made such a "fun show."

But now we have Rob who got $8,800 in debt by following the Grateful Dead and Jill whose four cats and dogs devoured $7,700 more than she earned. And we have another contestant paying off his hairpiece. The "all" they happily tell is how they got into the financial hole.

When I grew up, Ozzie and Harriet had separate beds and Arthur Miller's salesman dreamed of being "free and clear." When neighbors had a "mortgage-burning party," they were envied, not ridiculed for losing a tax deduction. If they went into debt, they did not share the fact and figures.

Americans now owe $1.2 trillion in consumer debt -- not counting mortgages. That's growing at 9 percent a year. And $350 billion of it is on credit cards.

In an era when these credit cards come uninvited in the mail and when "consumer confidence" is measured by the willingness to use them, it's all too easy to get in too deep. Not all of that money is in Melanie's shoes. But neither is it all in student loans.

If a handful of people will get out of debt by getting on "Debt," 1.1 million this year will get out by filing for bankruptcy. In 1991, people went bankrupt because they lost their job or their income. In 1996, the chief reason is "being overextended."

There's a lot less stigma in having a Chapter 11 in your autobiography. Once you went to debtor's prison. Now you go to debtor's TV. Once bankruptcy was to your financial commitments what infidelity was to your marital vows. Alas, it is again.

Have you noticed how many cultural analysts worry that too many Americans are unembarrassed by unwed pregnancy or unashamed of being on welfare? Should we remind them how unabashed we have become about living in the red?

In the real world, the government owes $5.1 trillion. Funny, but on "Debt," only the losers are awarded the piggy banks.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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