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
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
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."