To the victor, the debt holiday

Ann Treneman
Tuesday 17 September 1996 23:02

The voice is female, American and anonymous. "You have reached the Debt Hotline. Please leave your name and number." This may sound a simple request but it is far from that: this number is Californian and your response will help decide whether you will be screened for Lifetime TV's new hit game show.

The show is called Debt and the very name makes you wonder whether you should be leaving your personal negative accrual or your phone number. (Those with phone numbers that resemble their negative accruals are really in trouble.) Hundreds are ringing in, eager to compete in a sort of trivia olympiad in which the winner wipes out all - as in debts for credit cards, holidays, furniture, phone bills. (Britain take note: the show's most frequent applicants are students.)

Jeff Nimoy, an actor, is 30 and seen as a typical winner in the game, which has a $20,000 ceiling. His debt, at $16,224, fitted nicely. "I spent 12 years racking up that amount," he said. "I got rid of it in half an hour."

Now this is a brilliant idea, and it is unbelievable that no one has thought of it until now. In the past, game shows have been all about winning people - as in dates - or things, as in holidays, microwaves, crystal wine goblets, garden composters. But who wants a holiday when you've already got one on your credit card? "We figured that by the way Americans were spending money, most of them had already bought their prizes. What most people needed instead was a way to pay all those bills," senior producer Andrew Golder told The New York Times when asked how he helped come up with the idea. They figured right. Lifetime had nearly 5,000 people to appear on Debt, but only 390 have been picked to tell their tales on the 130 shows beamed to cable subscribers around America. These are sob stories with a capital $. In the old days game show contestants blushed over sex, immorality, secrecy and quirky likes and loves. Now the sordid details we want to hear are to do with impulse buying, home shopping, and taking it to the limit, credit-wise. This is a kind of shopaholic voyeurism - we are Peeping Toms into life's window displays - and it is addictive.

Take Hertz. Unbelievable name, unbelievable guy. On air he blamed his wife for buying too much "girl stuff" to rack up his $8,234 debt. Yet, after the show, he told a reporter: "It's one thing to make a nice salary, but even then, why shouldn't my wife and I go out to dinner? You have to buy that new computer for your recipes. Put them in a wooden box, and you'd be run out of the neighbourhood. Of course, you have to run up debt on your credit card. Life's expensive."

And getting more so. The average US household is almost four times more in debt (excluding mortgages) than 20 years ago. That means that the average debt of $2,563 in 1976 has grown to $12,018 today. Life's expensive here in Britain, too. At the last count the Central Statistical Office put Britain's outstanding credit debt at pounds 58.3bn. At this rate the lottery can only remain a new concept for so long. The Debt Lottery Game is an idea whose time has come.

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