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PBS Frontline: The Secret History of the Credit Card (2004)

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In "Secret History of the Credit Card," FRONTLINE® and The New York Times join forces to investigate an industry few Americans fully understand. In this one-hour report, correspondent Lowell Bergman uncovers the techniques used by the industry to earn record profits and get consumers to take on more debt.

"The almost magical convenience of plastic money is critical to our famously compulsive consumer economy," Bergman says. "With more than 641 million credit cards in circulation and accounting for an estimated $1.5 trillion of consumer spending, the U.S. economy has clearly gone plastic."

Millions of American families use their personal, general-purpose credit cards such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover to make ends meet; credit cards have been a discreet lifeline for families in financial straits.

But other consumers, like actor and author Ben Stein, use plastic purely for convenience. While it would appear that Stein -- who says he charges a small fortune every month on his credit cards -- is the ideal customer, in reality, he is what some in the industry call a "deadbeat." That's because he pays his balance in full every month.

The industry's most profitable customers, the ones being sought by creative marketing tactics, are the "revolvers:" the estimated 115 million Americans who carry monthly credit card debt.

Ed Yingling, incoming president of the American Bankers Association, tells FRONTLINE that revolvers are "the sweet spot" of the banking industry. This "sweet spot" continues to grow as the average credit card debt among American households has more than doubled over the past decade. Today, the average family owes roughly $8,000 on their credit cards. This debt has helped generate record profits for the credit card industry -- last year, more than $30 billion before taxes.