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In Praise of 'American Greed'

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can't claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.
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(Photo: miran/Flickr)

(Photo: miran/Flickr)

There are many memorable moments in 2002's Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine, such as that insightful interview with Marilyn Manson, that controversial interview with Charlton Heston, and that part where director Michael Moore goes around opening the front doors of Canadian households to see if they're locked. One scene that doesn't receive as much attention, however, is when Moore asks Richard Herlan, a former producer of Cops and a then-current executive producer of World’s Wildest Police Videos, why someone like him doesn't create a similar show about white-collar crooks. Herlan's response: "I love the idea; I don't think it would make [for] very interesting reality TV—unless we can get those people to get in their SUVs and drive really fast down the road away from the police." In short: The concept is worthy, but Ponzi schemes, wire fraud, and embezzled pension funds aren't the stuff of gripping cinéma vérité.

Around five years later, CNBC launched American Greed, an hour-long prime time program that documents real-life instances of corporate wrongdoing and predatory financial practice. While it employs conventional techniques found within the true crime genre—archive footage, exclusive interviews, Ken Burns-like pans across photographs, a booming voice-of-God narrator—it focuses on the men and women who work hard to separate you from your money without use of the sensational street-level violence that makes shows such as Cops so popular.

The thing is, though, American Greed is good TV. It's both informative in a way that would please Moore and entertaining in a way that would surprise Herlan. In the first episode, for example, we meet a competitive fisherman named Barry Hunt who solicits investments from friends and strangers for his phony business before leaving New Hampshire to do it again in Nevada. He eventually gets caught in Florida. In another installment, we learn how former telecommunications giant WorldCom used creative accounting to hide its decreasing revenue—a decision that earned CEO Bernard Ebbers 25 years in prison. Insider traders, religious charlatans, bona fide con artists—these are the characters who populate American Greed.

"Basically, what we're hoping to do is to give investors pause. When you hear something that seems too good to be true, you really have to dig down and do the research. A lot of times these so-called secret deals are scams."

"Stealing money with a pen can be as compelling as stealing money with a gun sometimes," says Charles Schaeffer, an executive producer of the show. "Making it compelling comes down to telling a story."

And he's right: The motive behind emptying an escrow account can be just as intriguing as the reason for burglarizing a gas station; it's just a harder tale to tell on TV given all the dry financial jargon and lack of chase scenes involving a helicopter. But American Greed must be doing something right; IMDb users give it an average rating of 8.2/10, and that's over the span of eight seasons—the most recent ending earlier this month.

AMERICAN GREED PROVIDES THE public with financial education in a time when the public could use more of it. Ponzi King Bernie Madoff may be behind bars, but others like him are out there rehearsing their next PowerPoint presentation.

"Basically, what we're hoping to do is to give investors pause," says Schaeffer. "When you hear something that seems too good to be true, you really have to dig down and do the research. A lot of times these so-called secret deals are scams."

According to an FBI report, throughout the 2011 fiscal year, the agency "secured $2.4 billion in restitution orders and $16.1 million in fines" from individuals found guilty of corporate fraud. As for securities and commodities fraud, the agency ordered $8.8 billion in restitution, $751 million in forfeitures, and $113 million in fines during the same time period. Cases related to health care fraud received a total of $1.2 billion in restitution and another billion in fines. (In 2007, the year American Greed made its debut, the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association presented the show with an Excellence in Public Awareness Award.) By contrast, from January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2011, the FBI reported that individuals or groups of individuals stole a combined total of just over $38 million from commercial banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. Most of these robberies occurred with a note passed across a teller's counter.

A 2011 FBI report even suggests changing dynamics in organized crime: "Gangs are also engaging in white-collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud, primarily due to the high profitability and much lower visibility and risk of detection and punishment than drug and weapons trafficking."

Spotting the difference between a legitimate opportunity to grow your savings and a fraudulent one can be difficult. The investing world, of course, is laden with obscure language meant to keep those in power ... in power. Then again, even experts at the top of the economic profession thought things were looking just fine moments before the sub-prime mortgage crisis proved otherwise.

American Greed doesn't have a huge audience. It's decent, but not Bill O'Reilly-huge. This is partially because CNBC is a niche channel with its own unique ratings challenges, and partially because the idea of watching a show about people in offices forging financial statements might not sound too appealing. But it is. And it's important to understand how and why it happens. Lots of people were both delighted and disgusted by the lavish spending, over-the-top parties, and charismatic scoundrels in Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, weren't they? Well, American Greed is kind of like that, just with a smaller budget and a penchant for the occasional bad pun.