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New money show strikes a timely chord WNED-TV program targets young viewers

When WNED-TV and HSBC Bank started developing the financial documentary "Your Life, Your Money" three years ago, they knew they had a hot topic on their hands.

Now, one year after the economy began the nose-dive that would be called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, its importance is even clearer.

"Before the economic crisis hit we knew we had an important, valuable subject. We just didn't know how valuable and important it was," said John Grant, the project's executive producer at WNED. "The crisis amplified the need for it."

The program, produced locally by WNED for national play on PBS, snatches the lid off America's dirty little secret of financially illiterate, monstrously indebted young people. Looking more like something you would see on MTV than public television, its edgy, straightforward style lends itself to its target audience of 17- to 24-year-olds.

Hosted by hip "Scrubs" actor Donald Faison, the documentary shows real young people struggling through authentic, everyday money issues -- such as getting out of debt and paying for insurance -- and shares practical expert advice from such relatable experts as the Washington Post's Michelle Singletary and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

"I was shocked to find people $30,000 in debt at 20 years old," Grant said. "You hear stories, but until you actually meet one of these people who is articulate, smart -- not a deadbeat -- who managed to dig such a hole for herself, and you find out that she's not alone, [it doesn't hit home]."

HSBC recognized the situation as so dire for young people, it gave $1.5 million to produce the program -- one of the biggest grants the bank has ever given to a single project.

Aside from creating the documentary, the grant provided for the creation of an interactive, long-term Web site, community outreach efforts in Buffalo and five other cities as well as teaching materials for educators and community leaders.

"While everyone was very excited about the idea of a national PBS program, we also felt it was critical that the program should have a life beyond the one-hour broadcast," said Kathleen Rizzo Young, senior vice president of community development at HSBC and the president of the foundation at the time the grant was given. "With the Web site and the extensive outreach efforts, the program's value has been expanded exponentially."

To start, WNED will host a public viewing party at Canisius College when the show first airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday. Afterward, a panel will feature associate producer Dawn Brown, Young Money chief executive officer Ben Levy, assistant comptroller at Canisius Kevin Smith and Tim Bouchard, a young Buffalo Web designer featured in a segment of the show.

On Oct. 15, it will hold an interactive workshop at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center for about 400 Western New York high school students with the Your Life, Your Money curriculum at its center. A workshop for educators is being set up for late October.

The marketing push from PBS has been tremendous and has been helped along by the subject's sudden timeliness. Young Money magazine, which is distributed on college campuses, devoted its entire fall issue to the program. It has been embraced by educators, television and the media, too, who realize formal instruction on the topic is lacking and parents aren't picking up the slack -- possibly because they don't understand finance themselves. In New York, high school students are required to take just one half credit unit of economics, a mere sliver of which is devoted to personal finance.

Bouchard, 26, of Buffalo, is featured in one segment of the show as he ventures into the world of self-employment, navigating the ins and outs of tax and insurance expenses with his fledgling Web design company Sharpcut Media.

Bouchard said he finds it disconcerting that lessons about personal finance never made it into his junior high, high school or college curriculum.

"My experience in finances before entering the professional world centered around how much money was left on my dining card in college and little else," he said.

It's that kind of disconnect experts said puts the show's target demographic in serious danger.

"People weren't taught about personal finance in school, let alone how to apply it to their own lives," said Beth Kobliner, a financial author and one of the show's experts.

In fact, she said, more than twice as many young people she surveyed could name Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' daughter (78 percent) than knew the interest rates on their own credit cards (40 percent).

At least one upside to the recession is that more people are opening their ears to the financial lessons that have been ignored for so long.

"There's no question about it. In normal times, economic information is a hard sell," said Grant. "Now that it's top of mind for so many people, it has really been embraced."

Kobliner agreed, saying in her 15-year focus on young people and money issues, her message has never been more sought after.

"Young people have huge debts and really bleak job outlooks, so they're desperate for personal finance information," said Kobliner. "People are too smart to be stupid about money. They need to be educated about money issues so that 20 years from now we're not right back in the same place."

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com