A decade ago, Michael Chernuchin began trying to sell television network executives his idea for a dramatic series revolving around Wall Street. Mr. Chernuchin was a promising producer whose credits would eventually include Law & Order . But year after year, his Wall Street pitch fell flat.
“All the networks told me, ‘Nobody cares about Wall Street,'” Mr. Chernuchin said recently. “Every year at the beginning of pitching season I’d go in and [hear] that.”
Times have changed. People care now, perhaps more than seems healthy, so when Mr. Chernuchin gave his Wall Street spiel last year, he got a warmer reception.
This summer, his Wall Street series, entitled Bull, debuts on the cable network TNT, which has ordered 13 episodes of the drama. And it won’t be long before his show will have some rivals: producer Darren Star ( Melrose Place, Sex and the City ) is shooting a Wall Street-inspired series, The Street , for Fox, and ABC is developing a half-hour sitcom with a Wall Street backdrop. At least one other network is rumored to be mulling its own Wall Street show.
“Wall Street is a very hot place right now,” said Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research at advertising giant BBDO. “It’s exciting and sexy, and it provides a good backdrop for a drama, and it provides viewers something different from another medical or cop show.”
Television has at last picked up on the fact that hordes of Americans are obsessed with the stock market and its stars. There has always been a bit of a lag between what seeps into the national consciousness and what shows up on network TV, but this particular delay has seemed especially long. As the heroes and villains of the new money culture–dot-com optionaires, bucket-shop thugs, genius C.E.O.’s–have dominated the popular imagination, the best programs on TV in recent years have dwelled on such old-world subjects as doctors, lawyers and cops.
“There’s no question that more people are fascinated with following Wall Street than ever before,” said David Nevins, Fox’s executive vice president of programming. “It’s one of those centers-of-the- Zeitgeist sort of places right now.”
So now we get to see Wall Street twisted into melodrama. From Bull and The Street to this winter’s Boiler Room and the forthcoming stockbroker-slasher pic American Psycho , Wall Street is getting more attention from Hollywood and TV than it has since the late 1980’s, when Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas immortalized swinging-dick culture in the Oliver Stone film Wall Street .
Soon, if any of these shows manage to succeed, the millions of viewers who have never met an investment banker or hung around Park Avenue South on a Friday night will turn to three-act television shows to learn what’s it’s like to be at the epicenter of American capitalism these days. The cocky stockbroker character, relegated to the cultural scrap heap, will return, complete with hair gel, arm candy and moral quandaries. This little piece of New York will get another turn on the national screen.
But how long will TV’s bullish attitude toward Wall Street last? The public’s interest in crime-and-court dramas isn’t dependent on something as volatile as the stock market. There’s always the fear that a crash could put all of these broker-themed shows on the fast track to cancellation. This may be why TV producers have shied away from the subject for so long.
Like all those market commentators who preach that the sky will never fall, however, network executives are confident, believing that Wall Street’s second go-round in the popular culture will last longer than its first. They cite the remarkable rise of public interest in the stock market as proof that the public’s interest in Wall Street is more deeply rooted than it was in the 80’s.
“A decade ago, I think the world of Wall Street was a more exclusive world, a more rarefied world, and would be less apt to be received by a television viewing audience,” said Bob DeBitetto, TNT’s president of original programming. “Today, the fact that that world has become much more a part of our popular consciousness–I think that gives it [Wall Street] an accessibility that it didn’t have maybe a decade ago.”
Indeed, 10 years ago, producers tried and failed to get Wall Street launched as a television spinoff. That film’s co-writer, Stanley Weiser–with whom Mr. Stone penned the infamous “Greed is good” speech delivered by Michael Douglas’ corporate raider, Gordon Gekko–said that the TV proposal died because of cost issues, as well as the belief that viewers wouldn’t tune in regularly to a Wall Street show.
But things are different now, Mr. Weiser said. “It’s screaming at you from the newspapers every day,” he said. “You walk into the supermarket, literally, and you hear the sandwich makers talking about the price of Intel and Nokia.”
Of course, the trick will be to turn these Wall Street television shows into lasting forms of entertainment. It’s one thing to sustain the public’s interest in money-hungry, ethically-challenged brokers for a feature-length film. It’s another to do it over the course of an entire television season, when viewers must come back week after week for a program to succeed. The key, said Mr. Weiser, will be developing protagonists who are compelling for reasons other than their net worths. “How do you make characters?” he asked. “The audience is not going to want to get behind these young brokers making money. You hate them.”
A Great Sort of Symbol
Bull , which stars Malik Yoba, George Newbern, Donald Moffat and Alicia Coppola, is about a group of brokers who break away from an established firm to start their own company. While that plot development forms the show’s backbone, Mr. Chernuchin said the main story line will focus on the relationships between the characters. “I think I have six interesting [characters],” Mr. Chernuchin said. “People that have the same problems as anyone else out there. The same goals, the same problems.”
But Mr. Chernuchin said he also plans to use Bull to examine up-to-the-minute trends from today’s Wall Street. “I have one episode about a day trader, because I want to show everything,” he said. “I’m going to do a lot of the deals, takeovers, I.P.O.’s.” He also said that since Bull ‘s characters work at a small firm, they will have quirkier clients, like ones based on ice cream barons Ben and Jerry, or Starbucks.
The Street , which will star Adam Goldberg, Tom Everett Scott, Jennifer Connelly and Giancarlo Esposito, is likely to be somewhat lighter in tone than Bull, given Mr. Star’s track record with Melrose Place and Sex and the City . Fox’s David Nevins said that The Street (listed, predictably, as The $treet ), which is shooting on location in New York and New Jersey, will be more of a male-oriented version of Sex and the City than a conventional Wall Street drama. “I don’t think it’s going to get into the intricacies of pricing an I.P.O. or attempt to parse the intricacies of high finance,” Mr. Nevins said. “But it will get into the larger sort of moral underpinnings that Wall Street is a great sort of symbol for.”
Mr. Chernuchin said he has felt drawn to Wall Street since the mid-80’s when, as a lawyer living in Manhattan, he was enthralled by the extravagant lives of young brokers. “I never worked on Wall Street,” he said, “but I was in New York having drinks with some friends who were working on Wall Street in, God, ’84 or ’85 or something, right in the middle of the boom, and they said, ‘Do you want to play golf on Sunday? We’re renting a plane, we’re flying across the country to Pebble Beach, we’ll have you home for dinner.’ I was just amazed. The money meant nothing to these kids. They were kids! We were 24 or whatever, and it meant nothing. I said, that’s an interesting lifestyle.”
Indeed, given the high stakes, Wall Street is replete with complicated characters–something that programs like The Sopranos and ER have shown that audiences can relate to. “I think it’s a complicated world,” said Mr. Nevins of Fox. “People want morally gray characters, although they want people struggling to do right. This show has assholes in it, no question about it, but I think at the center, our sort of trio of people do have some moral integrity that they wrestle with.”
Of course, there’s always the risk that even these good intentions will be misinterpreted. Just ask Mr. Weiser. He said he and Mr. Stone wrote Wall Street as a cautionary tale. But he has discovered, with some chagrin, that many fans, especially younger ones, have taken the film another way, reinventing the “Greed is Good” speech as a broker’s anthem and Gordon Gekko as the most perverted of cinematic idols. (In one of the best scenes in Boiler Room , which Mr. Weiser said he enjoyed, the young members of a sleazy stock outfit gather to watch Wall Street , and recite aloud the lines from the “lunch is for wimps” section of the film.)
“I’ve talked to young people in the film business, people who love it, and they don’t see it as a cautionary tale–they see it as an emulatory tale,” Mr. Weiser said. “When I hear this, it’s a little bit sobering.”
But as TV networks have discovered, it may not matter why people tune in, as long as they do. “Greed is like bad taste,” Mr. Weiser said. “It never goes out of fashion.”