VOICEOVER

From biz bigwigs to ordinary Joes, this sure is not the 'Life' it used to be

"What a revoltin' development this is," is how star William Bendix often put it in "The Life of Riley," and as a working-class stiff, his take on just about everything would aptly describe the mood of the country right now.

The writer who put those words in the mouth of our first blue-collar TV character, Irving Brecher, died this week at 94, having lived long enough to see the country lurch through a succession of downturns, though few as bad as the current one.

By the time "Riley" migrated from radio to television in the early 1950s, the postwar economy was on fire: Advertising began its love affair with the small screen, national highways were being built coast to coast, Chevys and Fords were selling like hotcakes, Ronald Reagan was pushing GE refrigerators and light bulbs and every kid knew what LSMFT stood for.

Unlike today's sex-saturated laugh tracks, the humor on "Life of Riley" was focused on life's little setbacks and familial foibles. The series, which ran on NBC from 1953-58, was in its own way escapist fare, as of course real life in the '50s did have its darker side.

Now, however, it seems that someone has hit the reverse button on the remote. Our country is in contraction mode, our infrastructure is crumbling, our cars are cluttering local dealerships and commercial spots on local TV stations have plummeted. For entertainment we turn to ever more elaborate escapist fare, "Dancing With the Stars" or "Dirty Sexy Money" — or C-SPAN.

The most amusing moment on television this week appeared on the latter: watching the three heads of our automakers, tin cups in hand, before Congress as they were grilled about their travel arrangements. I can just see Chester Riley hot under his blue collar at the very notion of bailing out such bigwigs. An airplane riveter by trade, he, like so many of his ilk today, would have had utter disdain for their corporate-jet lifestyle.

Nothing much else these days is as funny, though much is as incongruous.

The continuing cash crunch and stock market shakeout are taking every company, and just about every working person, down a peg or two, showbizzers included.

Who would have thought a year ago that the market cap, say, of CBS, which is having one of its better audience ratings performances in years, would be worth a piddling $5 billion? Or that General Electric, parent of NBC Universal (also not doing so badly), would be trading at around $13 a share?

What's fortunate for the Eye elite, the GE hierarchy and their rivals at other media conglomerates is that just about no one else, excepting the odd telco or the disparate Arab titan, has enough money to buy anything right now. Otherwise, they'd be ripe for the plucking.

Will they all implode and need a government handout like our beleaguered automakers? Of course not. Will they all have to continue to retrench over the next year? Absolutely.

What will we notice here in town other than that it's now so easy to get a table at all the chichi eateries? Well, for one, fewer movies being released, fewer getting funding, fewer getting the big-bang promotional sendoff. And on the TV side, more formats and more reruns. And probably no jokes about the economy.

The saving grace is that content makers here, unlike our increasingly out-of-touch car companies, actually make things that people worldwide want, whether in the movie houses or on their mobiles.

And right now, the tilt in emphasis at the studios and in consumer enthusiasm is toward the frothy, the fantastical and the franchisable. Animals with attitude, high schoolers who also are hoofers and angst- ridden vampires are definitely in.

On the former front, Disney seems to be in the catbird seat, what with two dog-dominated movies ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Bolt") as well as its ubiquitous, cross- platformed, pluri-promoted "High School Musical" juggernaut.

As for the bloodsuckers at the boxoffice, it has serendipitously fallen to an unaligned indie producer-distributor, Summit Entertainment, to come up with a formula potentially as lucrative as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" with its vamping teens in "Twilight."

Advice on Thursday from financial analyst Jeff Logsden at an HRTS panel in Los Angeles was for content makers to keep doing what they're doing and that despite low stock valuations, consumers will continue to flock to the hits.

One big test of just how much the bad financial news is weighing on ordinary Joes, however, will come during the year-end holidays.

Distributors have definitely backloaded the season, meaning about two dozen pictures, many with awards potential, are competing for eyeballs during that final two-week stretch. Unfortunately, they'll be competing against a likely mall melee as financially strapped retailers slash prices as much as 75% in order to move inventory.

It's an open question whether folks can afford the time and money to do both.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.
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