Josh Eidelson’s right that working-class people aren’t proportionally represented on television, noting, “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. [...] Compared to the rest of us, they’re much more likely to be wrangling with underlings or regulators rather than bosses.” But while I think it would be nice to have more working people on television, I think Josh misses a couple of critical points about why we don’t have more of those shows, especially in this paragraph:
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.
1) It’s not actually clear to me that there’s an enormous untapped audience for shows about working class characters. Ugly Betty, which is explicitly about the confrontation between someone from a working class background and a luxury industry, pulled 11.3 million viewers per episode in its first season and the ratings marched steadily downward. The very good Raising Hope is exactly the kind of show that I think Josh is looking for. The main character runs a gardening business with his father, while his mother works as cleaning woman. The show pulled an average of 6.4 million viewers, which is fine, but not spectacular. Mike and Molly, also new this season, about a romance between a public school teacher and a Chicago beat cop (categories that may not make them working poor, but I think most people assume makes them working class), did somewhat better, pulling an average of 11.14 million viewers per episode. The Middle, about a saleswoman and a quarry manager, pulled 6.9 million viewers in its first season and 8.11 million per episode in its second. CMT tried to do a show called Working Class, about a single mother who tried to get her kids better opportunities by moving them into an upscale neighborhood, drew 1.2 million viewers for its first two episodes, tanked thereafter, and was quickly cancelled. Each of those is less than half the 21.5 million episodes Roseanne pulled during its first season — numbers that declined steadily every year it was on the air.
I don’t know what Josh hears from the folks he organized, but if, as he suggests, there’s big pent-up demand for shows about working people, something in here should have broken out bigger than it has. Blaming this on advertisers doesn’t really seem accurate, especially given that shows about working people who are successful in their niches, like Tyler Perry’s sitcoms (which are about a fireman and a guy who opened his own nursing home), The Simpsons (about a homemaker and a power plant worker), or The Family Guy (Peter’s worked in factories and as a fisherman, Lois is a homemaker and gives piano lessons), both stay alive for a long time and have been spun off in multiple iterations. It may be that there’s a market for more shows about working class people, but the numbers don’t suggest a massive unfulfilled demand for them.