The new century rode in on the crest of a long-term bullish trend in stocks and social mood. As the decade started, there existed a collective feeling of contentment and well-being in the U.S.
Fantasies of instantaneous wealth were manifested in the number one Nielsen rating for Who Wants to be a Millionaire—and the creation of its obligatory board game. This show captured the top three slots in 2000 on separate days of the week, an unprecedented feat in network TV.
But then a harsher reality surfaced after the Supercycle market peak of mid-2000. Millionaire dropped sharply in the ratings after the 2000-2001 season as the stock market plummeted.
Negative social mood brought not only the major 2000-2002 bear market and renewed interest in crime shows, but also the intrusion of reality to primetime. Survivor andThe Apprentice were top ten reality shows. They entailed a Darwinian-like competition between strangers who sometimes engaged in under-handed and even ruthless behavior to avoid being eliminated from the contest.
A dog-eat-dog, every man for himself mentality gains traction during distressed social mood. On Survivor, the original reality show, conventional rules of social propriety are regularly violated. On this show, lying, cheating, back-stabbing, betrayal and other types of immoral behavior are acceptable because there are no rules prohibiting them, according to Bernard Gert, Dartmouth Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy. As noted by Andy Dehnart, “Viewers tuning in to some reality TV situations may come to the conclusion that there simply isn’t such a thing as moral behavior on reality TV.” These shows fit perfectly with a survival-of-the-fittest orientation that strengthens during negative social mood.
In February of 2002, the New York Times noted a trend toward increasingly harsh reality shows and headlined a “Nervous Hunger for Torture Games and Gross Out Stunts.” Extreme reality games on shows such as Fear Factor, The Chair, The Chamber, and Kidnapped “turn torture into entertainment (and) makes them cultural barometers…And most important right now, torture games tap into and defuse an undercurrent of anger in the country," according to the Times Caryn James. Anger rose as the market fell, and viewers were drawn to the “raucous fake violence” inflicted on contestants.
Increasingly negative social mood corresponds with increasing coarseness in social behavior. Perhaps not surprisingly, the low point of the 2000-2002 bear market was marked by increasing vulgarity on TV. The season starting in 2002 contained much more profanity in primetime, compared to the bull market years 1998 and 2000, according to a study by the Parents Television Council. During the first hour of primetime--the so-called family hour--profane language increased 95 percent from 1998, and foul language increased in every time slot and on almost every broadcast network.
Of note in this regard is the 2006 film Borat, a faux documentary about a bigoted, sexist, absurdly uncouth Kazakhstan “journalist” and the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that spews from his unsuspecting interviewees. In an era of ostensible political correctness, was Borat shunned and reviled? Far from it—it was a critical and commercial success, making $262 million worldwide and garnering Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. The same actor returned in the bear market of 2009 with Bruno, which elicited intolerance and homophobia from real people who were not aware they were in a Hollywood movie.
Unlike the comedies that dominated the ratings in the bullish 1950s, 60s, 80s, and 90s, only three comedy series were in the top ten more than one year during the first decade of the 2000s: Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives is a dark comedy, with plot lines involving themes of murder, suicide, betrayal, and infidelity—this is not the wholesome 1950s Lucy trying to hide her latest screwball scheme from husband Ricky. The narrator of Desperate Housewives is a woman who had killed herself and now speaks from beyond the grave.
Only two other comedies were among the top ten during the decade: Will and Grace for one season, and Two and a Half Men landed at number ten one season. No comedy was in the top ten following the 2005-2006 season. As the social atmosphere became less light-hearted, the desire to laugh and watch TV comedies decreased.
This shift in mood was also evident in shows aimed at teenagers. The bull market of the early and mid-1990s coincided with the light teen sitcoms Saved By the Bell (which featured nerd Screech) and Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, starring Will Smith. The more sober 2000s brought the darker teen dramas Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill, which explored serious social issues and featured teenage angst and troubled relationships.
Declining social mood brings morally ambiguous main characters to TV, just as it does to movies. A program trend in the 2000s has been antiheroes in lead roles: mobster Tony Soprano, “Jack Bauer, the torture-happy federal agent of 24, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), the pinup-boy serial killer of Dexter, Don Draper (Joe Hamm), the two-faced ad exec of Mad Men”, Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), the vengeful and unethical attorney of Damages, and Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) of TNT’s Leverage, the leader of a group of criminals that help little guys settle scores against corporations. Joshua Alston of Newsweek opined in early 2009 (during the second major bear market of the decade) that we were suffering from antihero overload and suggested the pendulum had swung too far toward morally ambiguous television characters: “it’s starting to seem as if bad guys are the only good guys.”
On 24, Agent Jack Bauer and his comrades and enemies illegally used chemical injections, electrical wires, heart defibrillators, and old-fashioned bone breaking to extract information from their captives. Bauer also forced a terrorist to watch a staged streaming video of his child’s execution.
In a surreal and disturbing case of life imitating art, Newsweek reported in 2008 that Jack Bauer was an inspiration at “brainstorming meetings” at Guantanamo prison and that he was “the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine…the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.” There was even a website called the Jack Bauer Torture Report.
Euan Wilson of the Socionomics Institute noted the negative social mood tone of TV programming of the decade since the 2000 stock market top: “Comedies are black and ironic; families are dysfunctional. Breaking Bad and Weeds both feature desperate parents who deal drugs to make ends meet. The critically acclaimed Arrested Development featured a broken yet hilarious family. Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia is described as ‘four friends who own Paddy’s Pub in Philadelphia [who are] flat out horrible people, but their reprehensible, selfish actions form the foundations for some twisted, hilarious comedy.’ ‘Flat out horrible people’ as a focus for comedy could work only in a bear market. ..House is all about a narcissistic, miserably drug-addicted but brilliant physician. Damages features characters who are completely capable professionally yet utterly despicable and hopeless everywhere else.”
Shows that debuted in Fall, 2009 were developed during the 2007-2009 bear market. “The nation is on a grimmer track, and the fall season echoes that mood shift,” according to TV critic Alessandra Stanley. “A few shows posit cataclysmic forces of change, like “V,” a series on ABC about aliens who invade the planet by posing as friendly visitors…Even the lighter sitcoms have a gloomy undertone.”
Change in social mood is also reflected in changes within the tone of ongoing series. Heroes debuted in September, 2006 as the stock market was climbing. This science fiction drama revolved around ordinary people who inexplicably develop superhuman abilities, and their reaction to these powers. The episodes became much darker by 2008-2009 season three, when a major bear market was in full swing.
The first two seasons were titled Genesis and Generations, while the third season was called Villains and was loaded with decapitations and increasing blood and violence. The characters became much more complex, conflicted, and struggled with “the dark side.” Even the innocent high school cheerleader and the cute comic relief character became darker, more tortured and complicated. It’s as if the script of Heroes was precisely following the social mood formula.
The highly rated Dancing With the Stars and American Idol combine a bear market competitive elimination theme along with a bullish focus on striving and achieving one’s dreams through talent and effort. These shows are more upbeat and don’t incorporate conflict between contestants, as on Survivor andThe Apprentice. Dancing With the Stars and American Idol emerged in the top ten ratings during the prolonged counter-trend stock market rally from 2003-2007. This rally occurred within the context of a larger bear market that started in 2000. Thus, this rally contained a combination of shorter-term bullish and longer-term bearish market trends.
Shows such as American Idol and America's Got Talent do not entail celebrity worship and adoration of stars---which is more intense during positive social mood---but rather rooting for the unknown underdog, the nonhero. This was exemplified by the phenomenon of Susan Boyle, the Scot who became an international sensation overnight after her appearance on Britain's Got Talent in April, 2009.
This frumpy, unassuming, unemployed 47 year-old from a hardscrabble life was the perfect candidate for people to identify with during a time of negative mood and economic despair. Her performance garnered tens of millions views on YouTube in the first week and became one of the most viewed clips ever. An incredible tide of emotion poured forth on her behalf from everyone from Hollywood celebrities to ordinary people.
Why did Susan Boyle strike a nerve and achieve such worldwide resonance? Her performance likely would not have elicited such a strong response during a period of elevated social mood. Coincidentally, the song that catapulted her to fame, I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Miserables, was perfectly aligned with the social mood following a financially devastating bear market. She told Larry King she chose that song “because it fitted in with the circumstances of that particular time,”; with its lyrics: “As they tear your hope apart, and they turn your dream to shame…I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living. Now life has killed the dream I dream.” Many viewers saw in her background and persona a reflection of their own frustrated hopes and dreams.
Susan Boyle’s saga has thematic parallels with Seabiscuit, the undersized racehorse whose long shot victories were followed closely by a nation in the grip of the Great Depression in the 1930s. His triumphs were said to lift the spirits of downtrodden citizens rooting for the underdog. The story of Seabiscuit was chronicled in movies in 1949 and 2003.