What Does a Bear (Market) Watch on Television?

Why do certain TV trends come and go? Believe it or not, the answer has a lot to do with your money.

The great bull market (search ) peaked in 2000, when public ownership of stocks became a mania. Few people grasp the SCALE of that mania -- especially the frenzy near the end. Some 175 equity mutual funds had triple-digit gains in 1999 -- more than 10 times the number for any other previous year.

On Aug. 16, 1999, just seven months before the peak in the S&P 500, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" debuted on ABC. Three months later the show carried ABC to victory in TV’s crucial November "sweeps." The Nov. 11, 1999, broadcast of "Millionaire" peaked at a monumental 25 million viewers. The Dow Jones Industrials peaked some two months later.

A host of imitators followed, with catchy names like "Weakest Link" and "Lifeline." Each one appealed to the emotion identified by Fox's copycat, "Greed." The shows charmed an audience that believed their next fortune was as close as their online trading account. It was a thrill!

Yet these shows had all vanished from prime time by the end of the 2001 season. Why? Because the bull market had peaked and a bear market was underway.

Consider the TV trend that immediately followed. It surfaced in reality programs such as "Survivor," "Fear Factor," "The Bachelor" and  "Jackass," as well as other popular shows. The common thread: Behavior that was demeaning, moronic, humiliating, pathological. If you watch TV you know what I'm talking about.

Why the public flood of degrading conduct? Because the same mass psychology that drives long-term stock market moves also drives popular culture.

As the stock market plummeted in 2001-2002, the thrills became, shall we say, different from those during the mania. Like those offered by "Jackass," who squeezed into a shopping cart, rocketed down a steep trail and crashed into a tree; or the promise of extreme humiliation made by Fox's "Joe Millionaire." Millions of viewers tuned in to watch a young lady suffer the disgrace of competing with 20 other women for a rich man, only to discover that he was a low-paid construction worker.

Talk about a metaphor!

Why would anyone want to be on the other side of a camera that deliberately records a hopeful young face at the instant of her betrayal and heartbreak? Because the public was filled with bearish emotions. The vast majority of investors had heeded Wall Street's advice to "hang on" during the deepest market declines in decades. Their portfolios declined by 30, 40, 50 percent or more. Is it any wonder they identified with negative behavior?

By appearing at the end of a 20-year bull market, the "Millionaire" genre of shows was a powerful indicator that a top was near. The public bought the idea that a fortune was only a few quiz questions away. The disappearance of these shows and the rise of "Fear Factor" and its siblings came very soon after the bear appeared. The huge contrast in these TV trends tells you plenty about the massive shift in TV viewer mood and its parent, market psychology.

Yes, the stock market rallied in spring and summer this year. But have you done any prime-time surfing on the sports and travel channels lately? If so, you've seen an activity that has rarely (if ever) been on TV before:

High-stakes poker games.

"The 2003 World Series of Poker" has been running on ESPN, modestly billed as "the biggest poker game in history. 839 players. Five days. A first prize of $2.5 million, a winner's share bigger than the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, Indianapolis 500 or any other competition on Earth." The Travel Channel and the Discovery Channel have likewise anted up with programs like "Inside the U.S. Poker Championship" and "Gambling Games -- Beating the House."

If you tune into this stuff for a vicarious thrill, be prepared. The friendly euphoria of 1999/2000 is all too absent. There's no smiling Regis Philbin (search ) to ask an easy first question, no chance to call a friend if you get stumped. In high-stakes poker you're on your own, at a table of inscrutable faces where a great bluff often trounces a great hand.

What's more, the poker is No Limit Texas Hold 'Em (search ) -- an all-or-nothing showdown where most of the cards come face up and there's no cap on the number of raises. The environment is merciless. There is only one winner, whose success comes at the expense of every other player.

In a bullish rally within a larger bear market, optimism is replaced by ...


So what does this season's prime-time lineup anticipate for the market? Well, let's hope that PBS has as little to do with predicting market behavior as it does with must-see TV, because on that network, the famous filmmaker Martin Scorsese (search ) is lead director for a series about music. The title of the series? "The Blues.”

Robert Folsom is a financial writer and editor with Elliott Wave International, a financial research and analysis firm founded on the Wave Principle of culture and economics developed by Ralph Nelson Elliott. Folsom writes EWI's daily Market Watch column.