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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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December 1996


Issue Analysis: Business: Still TV's Most Wanted
Prime Time Entertainment's Portrayal of Business

According to Mark Twain, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctively native American criminal class except Congress." Tell it to Hollywood. Prime time television writers seem to think that the only native criminal class in America is business. And the bigger the TV business, the more likely it is to be populated by the worst in society.

Media Research Center analysts reviewed twelve weeks of prime time fare (the shows from the first full week of each month) from 1995. The MRC found that of the 365 criminals on these shows, 106, or 29 percent, were business owners or executives. Of the criminals whose occupations were made known to viewers, 41.6 percent were business owners or executives. This was a far higher number than any other occupation. Only 33 (or nine percent) of the criminals portrayed were career criminals, such as mob bosses and terrorists. Eighteen police officers (4.9 percent) turned out to be crooked, while seventeen doctors (4.7 percent) broke the law. Those in the military committed only 10 TV crimes (2.7 percent), one more than entertainers themselves (nine -- 2.5 percent). Amazingly, only four lawyers were lawbreakers, a mere 1.1 percent of TV criminals.

These business outlaws, moreover, committed among the most brutal of crimes. Of the 157 TV murders during the study period, 45, or 28.7 percent, were committed by business owners or executives. These 45 constituted 39.1 percent of the murders in which the occupation of the assailant was known. Again, this is a far higher murder rate than for career criminals (16 murderers), police officers (nine murderers), doctors (seven murderers), members of the military (six murderers), entertainers (five murderers), and lawyers (one murderer); higher, in fact, than for all of those six occupations combined.

On an episode of CBS' Murder She Wrote, for example, two Irish land developers are not only out to destroy that country's traditions and environment, but also murder those who get in their way. An Irish father tells his son, who wants to advance Irish industry: "Speak with your heart if you have one. Laura tells me it's withered in the world of commerce and industry." And some business executives were quite gruesome in their murders. A CEO of a modeling agency on Fox's Models, Inc. tells a hit man that she wants a murder done "in public and I want it messy. In fact, the messier the better."

Big business vs. small business. Big business owners and executives were far more likely to be crooked than small business owners. According to television, in fact, if you go into business, it's best not to be successful. For to succeed, you must cheat others, cease to be of any benefit to society, and risk becoming a hardened criminal.

There were a total of 541 business characters on prime time television during the study period. Of these, 341 were small business owners, constituting 63 percent of the total business characters. There were 195 big business owners or executives; they constituted 36 percent of the business characters. (The businesses associated with five characters -- .9 percent of the total -- could not be classified.)

While there were almost twice as many small business characters as big business characters, big business characters were twice as likely to murder as small business characters. Of the 45 businessman murderers, 31 (68.9 percent) were big business owners or executives. Fourteen (31.1 percent) were small business owners. Big business owners were also far more likely to cheat their customers or others in order to get ahead. Of the 142 businessmen shown cheating to get ahead, 92 were big business owners or executives; fifty were small business owners. This means that almost half (92 of 195 -- 47.2 percent) of all big business owners and executives on television are shown cheating to get ahead, while only 14.7 percent (50 of 341) of small business owners cheated to get ahead.

On an episode of Murphy Brown, a former employee of a software company quotes his former boss as defending the shutting down of a plant in a small town: "Towns are expendable; profits are not." A business character on New York News tells his sales employees that "people tend to turn a little sentimental around Christmas time, so prey on their emotions."

Business and society. But even the businesses that don't cheat are rarely shown meeting the needs of society on prime time television. Only 133 of the 541 (24.6 percent) business characters were actually shown working or dealing with customers. This is probably an increase over the past. The classic example in years past of a business which wasn't shown meeting the needs of society was on Designing Women. All of the characters were partners in an interior design firm, but they never worked. Their jobs were rarely made part of the story and their work was not portrayed as vital to society or beneficial to others.

Recently this has changed for the better. On several shows, business owners are shown meeting society's needs and their jobs have been woven into the plot. On Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, for instance, many of the townspeople are business owners whose jobs are shown to be vital to their frontier community. The title character on Ellen is the owner of a bookstore and it is occasionally part of the plot for the show.

But here, too, there is a difference between small and big businesses. Only 19 of the 133 businesses shown meeting society's needs were big businesses, while 114 were small, which means that over a third (114 of 341 -- 33.4 percent) of the small businesses shown on TV were portrayed as beneficial to others, while a mere 9.7 percent (19 of 195) of the large business were portrayed as beneficial to anyone besides the greedy owner or CEO.

Beware of investors. Those characters who worked for investment firms, or were otherwise involved in investing, fared particularly poorly on prime time television. There were 17 such characters during the study period. Eight of them (47.1 percent) were criminals, with six of those being murderers. More than half (nine -- 52.9 percent) cheated customers or others to get ahead or have their way.

As these numbers suggest, investing was portrayed as, by its nature, a somewhat shady undertaking. On an episode of Fox's Living Single, for example, an investment banker says, "We are talking about 10,000 tax-free dollars. When asked how he knows the money is tax free, he replies: "I'll find a way." Throughout the year, investment banker characters also found ways to embezzle money and murder.

For all this, Hollywood's writers are becoming somewhat more imaginative in selecting criminals. Three years ago, the Media Research Center found that during a similar sample of 1992 prime time fare, business owners or executives comprised 43 percent of the criminals and 36 percent of the murderers. That's higher than this year. But, in general, New York Times TV critic John Leonard's assessment is as apt today as it was then: "On television...to be in business is to ride a monorail of avarice to disaster and bad sex."


Rich Noyes


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