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 on Saturday 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 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 is a trend that 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 the 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 schoolteacher, waitressing on the side and about to teach fitness.
They answered an ad from a television show looking for families who 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 say the cameras weren't intrusive since they're used to having a lot of people around their house. Laura Bruce said she isn't ashamed by any of it, even though she has to make a painful call seeking money from her stepfather.
The frustration of not being a provider is evident on Todd's face. Cameras show him asking for quick payment for work he's done, and being refused.
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.
"It's about giving parents the ability to say that it's OK to talk to your kids about money because it is so taboo," Todd Bruce said. "They say never talk about money, religion or politics at the dinner table. I think the kids feel less pressure when they know what's going on."
The parents say they feel their children are grounded enough to deal with the attention that will come their way.
WE hopes the Bruce's 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.