Must-See Recession-Era TV: “The Card Game” and More

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PBS’s “Frontline,” which features journalist Lowell Bergman on camera and that awesome, ultra-serious voiceover dude who has the ability to make everything sound like there’s some nefarious conspiracy afoot, takes on the credit card industry—again. Also, TV shows on how to sell your stuff for quick cash, and how to endure financial lectures from your parents.

Every consumer is sure to get some insight—and a decent amount of outrage—while watching the Frontline special “The Card Game,” which airs tonight on PBS. The best interviews for these Frontline shows are always the former insider who now feels bad about what awful things his company did to customers, and who comes clean on camera and reveals all of the old tricks. In this case, the source is Shailesh Mehta, a former executive of Providian Financial Corporation, described by the NY Times as:

a credit card company that pioneered what [Mehta] calls “penalty pricing” or “stealth pricing.” With disarming candor, Mr. Mehta reviews the tactics that lure new cardholders, many with poor credit records, with promises of no annual fees and initial zero-interest periods, only to squeeze them later with high interest rates and fees lurking in the fine print of their account contracts.

In one the clips you can check out in advance, Mehta basically says that no matter what legislation Congress cooks up, there is no real way to fully protect consumers and still have a free-market system.

“How do you solve it? I don’t know,” Mehta says. “Tell me the rules, and then I’ll outsmart you all. You tell me the stupid laws, and I’ll comply and I’ll make money,” he says, describing the banker mentality. “Lending money to people is never a difficult exercise. And there are always some desperate people who will take the product.”

Frontline also features several everyday consumers who were squeezed by their credit card issuers in one way or another. Per the Times, they include:

Ben Collins, a construction contractor whose small business has been paralyzed by the arbitrary reduction of his firm’s credit card limit; Don Bollinger, a rural worker who survived cancer but was forced into bankruptcy after he lost his job and his credit card company doubled the interest rate and minimum payments on his existing balances; and Josette Wermuth, whose debit card’s mandatory overdraft “protection” ended up costing her $365 in penalty fees after a $7 pizza purchase left her with a negative account balance.

Among the trends emerging this holiday season is an increase in shoppers putting away the plastic and going cash-only. Based on the economy, the job market, and what you’ll see on “The Card Game,” using cash rather than credit cards is a prudent move.

Also especially of interest to recession-era TV viewers:

Pawn Stars
The show, which follows the everyday life of a family pawn shop business in Las Vegas, debuted on the History Channel this past summer, which seems like pretty good timing considering it was a moment when a lot of people were looking around their homes trying to find stuff they could sell for money. A new season of shows starts next week, and there are sure to be plenty more odd characters coming into the store looking to make some cash off of everything from Salvador Dali prints to a dagger than may or may not be from Vietnam.

Bank of Mom and Dad
Each week, the SOAPnet channel program features a different 20-something woman who is so deep in debt that she is willing to endure her parents (and a “tough love” financial advisor) moving in with her and analyzing every dime she spends. You’d think the opposite move might make more sense, what with huge numbers of people under age 35 being force to move back in with the ‘rents. Old episodes are available at Hulu.

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Online Episodes: Recipes from the Great Depression