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'Frontline's' 'Card Game': A matter of life and debt

THE SHOW "The Card Game" on "Frontline"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

REASON TO WATCH Unusually sharp view of the personal credit crisis.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Look in your wallet or purse. See those plastic things that are like anvils around some of our necks? That's what this program is about. Anchored and reported by Lowell Bergman - a former investigative producer with "60 Minutes" whose spiked profile of a tobacco industry whistle blower was turned into a film by Michael Mann - "The Card Game" carefully walks viewers through credit card debt, and how it got here.

There are 100,000 plastic transactions a minute and Americans are now nearly a trillion dollars in debt. Bergman interviews the godfather of this vast enterprise - a recluse named Shailesh Mehta, who once ran Providian, which pioneered a raft of current practices, like 0 percent APR and so on. Mehta casts his innovations in almost altruistic terms - that this allowed those with lousy credit or no credit to get loans. The program then wide-angles to what Providian's innovations have led to - quite literally a nation hooked on consumer debt with no way to pay it off.

So what happened? Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn., chairman of the Senate banking committee, who looks a little anxious here) observes that the "cops left the beat," allowing the numerous perversions or extensions of Providian's innovations to entrap millions. Dodd is, of course, one of the cops. There are many, many interviews here (credit card bank chieftains declined to talk), including with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who says, "We need to fix the rules and make them tougher." Then, Bergman reports that Geithner and the Obama administration refuse to set a limit on soaring APR rates.

MY TAKE There is no shouting, no accusatory fingers pointed at banking desperadoes and their minions, or whatever soap operatics a lesser program than "Frontline" might employ. (By the way, finger-pointing is warranted.)

Instead, the program bores down to the hard, cold truth - that Congress remains deeply divided over whether it's more important to protect the banking system or the consumer. Capping the APR rate, for example, would hurt banks, but help consumers. Who should sink? Who should swim?

BOTTOM LINE Muckraking journalism at its best. Watch this and - I'm sorry - weep.


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