Q&A: The Mind Behind ABC's Unbroke Special

In anticipation of personal finance hitting prime time this evening, MainStreet spoke with Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, Good Morning America contributor and the creator and host of ABC’s Un-broke TV special (Stock Quote: DIS). We talked about why America needs some serious re-education about money and whether celebrities (including the Jonas Brothers and Samuel L. Jackson) are the best ones to do it.

MainStreet: How did the whole idea for the UnBroke special get started?
Hobson: It was my idea. I approached David Westin, the head of ABC News, saying I think I have a creative idea for how to relay really important financial information to people in a way that would be really fun and very different. I outlined it all for him and he thought it was a good idea. Then they gave me the green light to move forward.

Who is the target audience for this kind of special?
I say you can be 8 to 80 years old! Literally, you could be an 8-year-old and enjoy this or you could also be an 80-year-old and learn something new. It really runs the gamut. There is something in it for everyone. There’s even Oscar the Grouch, who appeals to the child in all of us. Oscar was really popular even with our crew while we were filming. There’s Antonio Banderas, who appeals to a very different demographic, and Cedric the Entertainer appealing to another. The whole idea was truly a diverse lineup of people that appealed to different sensibilities, different interests on different topics. Ultimately it’s a show that can really cross age, gender, and racial barriers.

It looks like the Jonas Brothers will be teaching viewers about the stock market. How did you match celebrities with the subject matter they'll be discussing?
Sometimes it had to do with how creative we got around the concept. Once you see the concept for the Jonas Brothers segment, it will make sense to you. Sometimes it had to do with the personality of the celebrity. We would have an idea for someone and we’d really spend time thinking about it and rewriting it, re-conceiving it. It was a very fluid process.

I first and foremost sat down and wrote out what I needed to explain. What must be conveyed no matter what? Once I had the financial concepts themselves, I looked at ideas for how to convey that topic. Then I looked at who could convey that the best. Once I got the person, I adapted how that was conveyed. It was a work in progress and definitely a team effort. There was a big group writing and working on this along with me.

Were most of these stars up to date on their financial knowledge or did they need a lot of help before talking on it?
The general response that I got from them was, “We agree this is a very important public service.” They wanted to be able to explain this to their kids or would say, “It took me a long time to learn this,” or “There are some things here I still want to learn.” It was all over the gamut, but there was clearly support, interest and real belief that the time has come for this idea.


What main point do you hope viewers will come away with?
If I had to boil it down to one point, it would be, “You are in charge. No one is going to take care of this for you.” It’s a call to action in a way. The reason that point resonates now is because the financial crisis has given us this teachable moment.

Do you think a TV special with celebrities is the best way to explain smart money choices?
The way that I thought of it was, “When you’re a child, how does your mom get you to take your medicine?” She puts it in orange juice. The celebrities are the orange juice. The information is still there, it’s still important, it’s still solid. They make it fun, they make you want to watch. They are unbelievably talented. Some even went on their own and ad-libbed some of their parts. It’s all really good. What better way to get people to sit down and show something they want to learn more about? Their hearts are in it, but generally in the past the information was given in such a way that your eyes glaze over.

 

Un-broke: What You Need To Know About Money airs tonight, from 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern time on ABC. You can follow MainStreet and the personal finance blogosphere’s response to the special live on Twitter. Make sure you use the #unbroketv hashtag!



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Un-broke: Can the Stars Solve Your Money Problems?

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