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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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April 1996


Fox's Profit Motive
New Show Continues Prime Time Tradition of Business Bashing

Profit, a new prime time show on Fox, starts from a unique premise. Far from being the sympathetic hero, Jim Profit, the main character whose voice narrates the show, is a villain. Viewers naturally root against, rather than for, the show's namesake. This is new, different, and daring, and it makes for entertaining television. But in another way, Profit is anything but new. As is so often the case on TV, the villain is a corporate executive. Jim Profit, in fact, is a supervillain gone berserk. In the show's premiere episode, which aired April 8, Profit is shown to be a relentless climber at Gracen & Gracen (G&G), the company where he is a vice president. He uses confidential information to blackmail a decent secretary into sabotaging her equally decent boss, whose job Profit covets. When the secretary later comes to work for Profit, he says: "It's good to see Gail understands the basic nature of business. We adapt or pay the price."

He uses other ruthless means to weed out those in his way. He frames a female vice president for the blackmail of the secretary, getting her fired. He seduces the wife of another vice president, and then masterminds a plan to make it look like she's sleeping with G&G's CEO. When her husband beats up the CEO (who, by the way, does pick a new mistress every year), he gets fired. And viewers find out that Profit became a vice president in the first place by inducing a heart attack in the vice president above him. How did profit become so evil? Late in the premiere, viewers learn that as a child Profit was forced by his father to live in a cardboard box and spent all his time watching television through a hole cut out of the box. Profit tracks down his father, kills him, and threatens to frame his stepmother if she turns him in or tries to thwart his business plans.

The appearance of the show has rekindled a long-running debate about Hollywood's portrayal of business. The experts' conventional wisdom: the greedy scoundrels are getting what they deserve. Graef Crystal, a psychologist and compensation expert, told USA Today that employees "can't take out [their] rage on the CEO -- that person is too powerful. You probably can't even talk to the press for fear of losing your job. But a show that makes you say 'yes, that's exactly what it's like' will hold your attention."

Alan Merten, dean of Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management, also pinned the blame on the business world. He told USA Today that corporate executives "should look at this trend and realize that whatever their financial motives, their actions aren't playing well in Peoria. The timing of some large layoffs and big [executive] bonus packages has been terrible."

Perhaps. But Hollywood's business bashing isn't, as Merten suggests, a new trend; it's an institution. The show Dallas was popular long before the current wave of layoffs and in a 1992 Media Research Center study of entertainment programming, businessmen were 43 percent of the criminals, far more than lawyers, politicians, or any other profession. Even, in the past, when there have been positive business characters, such as the business owners on Designing Women, they haven't been positive because of their business. By contrast, there were evil lawyers on L.A. Law, but also lawyers who benefited society because of the work they did.

A more likely explanation for Hollywood's continued business bashing is that entertainment television writers still hold to an ideology which cannot conceive of business as an honorable calling that serves society by producing goods, services, wealth, and jobs. Profit, to them, seems to be a four-letter word.


Rich Noyes


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