Why Everyone On Television Is Richer Than You
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Imagine you live in a town of 174 people called “TV-ville.” Each person living there represents one of the pilot scripts bought by the four big TV networks for the upcoming fall season. (I’ve culled these from a list recently published by New York magazine, which has a brief description of each of those scripts. The 174 scripts I have included were those that mentioned someone’s job.) If you ever need law enforcement, you’re in luck. TV-ville is home to twenty-three cops, and if that’s not enough to make you feel safe, there are also seven CIA and FBI agents to back them up, as well as victimologists, spies, and fourteen investigators (public and private). If you get sick, you have twenty-four doctors to choose from. If you need to sue, you can call one of the town’s eighteen lawyers. But there’s a downside to living in TV-ville: It may take a while to get a table, because the whole town only has one waitress.
The people of TV-ville compose a community far removed from our own: a town with a data-capture expert but no dishwasher, a rocket scientist but no sanitation worker, and a tech magnate but no truck driver. TV-ville is full of people who run their own businesses, often inherited: an inn, a brew pub, a winery, a portrait gallery. Compared to the rest of us, they’re much more likely to be wrangling with underlings or regulators rather than bosses. Many of them are celebrities: celebrity chef, celebrity hairstylist, NFL player, sitcom star, pop star, vice president of the United States. These celebrities should create ample business for TV-ville’s transition consultant, sports agents, talent agent, executive recruiter, and dating guru.
Back in the real world, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measured last year’s mean annual income for full-time employees at $44,410. Every one of the occupations that shows up three or more times in TV-ville pays more than that, according to the BLS: police officers average $55,620; detectives and investigators, $73,010; lawyers, $129,440; and physicians and surgeons, $180,870. The BLS doesn’t measure what CIA or FBI agents make.
Mark Engler previously drew attention in this space to Roseanne Barr’s righteously indignant reflection (also in New York ) on Roseanne’s run on primetime TV. Barr recalls believing in 1987 that “people were primed and ready to watch a sitcom that didn’t have anything like the rosy glow of middle-class confidence and comfort, and didn’t try to fake it.” Though the show’s success suggests that audiences were, Barr’s experience off screen convinced her that network executives weren’t.
After mounting defenses of the inherent drama of their favorite occupations, I imagine those executives would suggest that they’re giving the people what they want. They’d say that viewers who are underpaid or underemployed would rather come home to the sexual hijinks of young doctors or the maneuvering of high-powered executives. As long as executives snatch up shows about New Yorker cartoonists and diamond magnates while neglecting shows about people on the assembly line or behind the register, there will be few opportunities to test that hypothesis. But my experience organizing in low-income communities suggests that Roseanne is right to blame the professionals rather than the viewers. There’s no lack of high-stakes drama in the lives of poor people, and there’s an audience ready to see it reflected on TV. Whether advertisers are ready is a different story.
Sadly for the citizens of TV-ville, only a small fraction of the purchased scripts will make it onto TV this fall. Most of the scripts purchased never even make it off the page and into a produced pilot. TV-ville’s venture capitalist, crisis manager, and radio host all made that cut, according to New York magazine. But TV-ville has already lost its only waitress.