Television and the Drama of Money by John Corner

Printable version Thursday 22 November 2012 Last updated at 09:58

February 2009

Television and money have a longstanding, deep and expansive relationship, one which scholarship in different national contexts has made the subject of its analysis. That intriguing (ideological more than descriptive) idea of ‘affluence’ is bound up with the very development of the medium in many countries and certainly so in Britain, with television both a ‘sign’ of growing affluence and an agency of it through the promoting of consumer feelings and aspirations. Money has also provided television’s generic system with one of its strongest themes for generating social spectacle, most obviously in shows allowing viewers to witness the highs and lows of ‘ordinary’ people trying to obtain more of it.  ‘It’s time to get rich’ proclaimed the title song of the series Double Your Money (ITV) back in 1955 and the folk-celebratory mode of tele-materialism that this phrase captures has, in its updated form, recently been provocatively dramatized in Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, 2008).

In the last decade, spectacles of shrewd consumption have developed as strongly as those of lucky acquisition, including the property programmes in which people who seem to be doing pretty well for themselves ponder at length over precisely which Mediterranean villa to buy, thereby causing aspiration, envy and loathing to mix variously in viewers’ minds. In another development, entrepreneurial flair has joined performing talent, skill at answering questions or willingness to undergo various forms of self-abasement as a basis for ‘winning’. Programmes like The Apprentice (2004 – present) combine core elements of gaming with rather more serious and suspect ideas about personal quality and due reward in the exciting, competitive and emphatically ‘real’ world of big business.

Since September last year, however, the drama of money has undergone a transformation, along with the ‘real’ world of business. It has become clear that for many it is not ‘time to get rich’, not for a bit anyway. The dramatic tenor has shifted to an emphasis on loss, and avoiding loss, rather than on gain. It has deployed more familiar elements from disaster movies and science fiction narratives (particularly those in which the ‘bad thing’ keeps resurrecting itself).

Television has shown its usual resourcefulness in mediating the growing fears around money (as its history shows, bad things can do wonders for viewing figures). BBC news’ downturn logo is now widely familiar from the bulletins – a snaking, red ‘trend arrow’ which, after a desperate attempt to gain height, has now plunged down and buried its point firmly in the ground (no semiotic shilly-shallying here).  Having colonised news and current affairs and given rise to a number of special features (e.g Evan Davis’ The City Uncovered (2009) for BBC - being ‘uncovered’ by television is a sure sign that, whatever your former status, you’re now seriously dodgy) the new drama of money is now making swift cross-generic progress into entertainment.

It is in this context that the BBC2’s ‘reality’ three-parter, Million Dollar Traders (January/February 2009) is at once so predictable and yet, I think, so engaging. Eight ‘ordinary’ people (television’s commitment to ideas of the ‘ordinary’ continues to be in a central, mutually defining relationship with its projections of ‘celebrity’) get to play at being market traders. A millionaire retiree in his late twenties guides them along with that mixture of abusive warmth and banal advice so familiar to the genre.

What they don’t know, and what the programme-makers didn’t either, is that their two-month stint working as a hedge fund team will run straight into the market crash of last September. Preventing loss soon becomes a stronger dynamic than achieving gain as the drama of money draining away is established visually not only on their faces but in repeated shots of the figures on their dealing screens turning red. It is not all bad news though. Threatened war in the Middle-east brings some timely opportunities to get into arms-trading and check out oil prices. For those who have got the hang of it, working with ‘short’ positions, in which the money is placed on the share price dropping rather than rising, can also bring relief. With this approach, red screens and companies going bust can be cause for some serious celebration.

There is, however, an uncertainty among the team not only about quite what they should be doing but also about the larger logics and ethics of it all. In that sense, Million Dollar Traders modestly complicates the established versions of television’s drama of money. The viewing experience can simultaneously be one of engaged identification and appalled rejection. It hooks into and brings out a little more sharply our own ambivalence about money in its relation to other values. The final episode brings this tension to a head when three of the participants, already in conflict with their trainer and his boss, leave the show in sympathy with a colleague who has been effectively dismissed for underperformance. This narrative twist, involving a rejection of the project’s imperatives and its distinctive discourse of control, leaves the relative trading success of the remaining trio (they manage to contain losses to a minimum) a little undercut ethically. This is so despite the best efforts of their hilariously tough-talking mentors to put a Darwinian gloss on the exit of half the team (we all know what happens to the weak don’t we?).  Right to the end, the commentary voice-over continues to work with the tacky, heroic idea of trading as office-work’s equivalent to the SAS, an idea that the series began with. However, the pictures and the dialogue give us a far more disrupted sense of the world we are watching.

As many recent studies have shown, television remains a primary conduit (and often amplifier) for the social construction of fear. It has been an eager agency for the threat of terrorism and a tardy one for warnings of climate change. Now it has global financial collapse to work with it will be interesting to see the range of generic moves it feels able to make and the ideological and normative contradictions it works its way through while making them.


John Corner is currently Visiting Professor in Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. He has written extensively on media history, institutions and forms in books and journals. Recent work includes Public Issue Television (co-authored with Peter Goddard and Kay Richardson, MUP 2007), an article on Political Culture and Television Fiction (with Kay Richardson, European Journal of Cultural Studies 11.4. 2008. 387-403) and a short commentary on Public Knowledge and Popular Culture (Media, Culture and Society 31.1 2009 141-149). His current research interests include political culture, public communication ethics and developments in documentary.






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