Pawnbrokers, hoarders and cake bakers are unlikely subjects for popular reality series. Could families hit hard by the recession be next?
The WE television network tonight premieres Downsized, an eight-episode series about the blended family of Laura and Todd Bruce who are struggling financially following the collapse of Todd's construction business.
Bruce used to take in $1.5 million a year. But in the first episode, he's shown emptying a bottle of change and his kids are shown dumpster-diving and selling a favorite baseball mitt to pay the month's rent.
"It's the face of the economic issue of our times," said John Miller, chief programming executive at the women-centered WE network.
One of WE's competitors, Lifetime, last week began airing The Fairy Jobmother, about a supernanny-like consultant who tries to shape up jobless families.
Recession TV can cut both ways. People with their own financial troubles may appreciate seeing others go through the same things, making them feel less alone or stigmatized. Yet it can be excruciating to watch the wounded pride on Bruce's face as he tells his wife not to borrow money from her father, or the shame of his 17-year-old daughter who tries to buy groceries and is told at checkout that the family's public benefits had run out.
The Bruces have been married five years and have seven children from previous marriages. They live outside Phoenix. They lived well when construction was booming, frequently eating out, and didn't react quickly when tougher times came. Bruce racked up credit card debt trying to keep up and pay employees when the work went away. Laura Bruce is a teacher, waitressing on the side and about to teach fitness.
They answered an ad from a television show looking for families that wanted to save money.
For the series, Miller said producers wanted a family "that felt like people next door that you would love to hang out with.
"They are a family that is facing a terrifying part of their lives and are united, instead of lashing out at each other," he said. "Instead of saying, 'We're doomed,' they say, 'We're a family and we're going to make it.' "
The Bruces haven't seen the first episode. They said they had a family meeting to decide whether to participate in the show and the children, who range in age from 10 to 17, all gave the go-ahead. The "nominal" payment for being in the series enabled the couple to pay back their children for money borrowed to make the rent, Laura Bruce said.
WE hopes the Bruces' story will strike a chord with other struggling families.
"People are tired of reality characters that are fun to watch because they are proud of being despicable," he said.