Media Reality Check
  Notable Quotables
  Press Releases
  Media Bias Videos
  30-Day Archive
  The Watchdog
  About the MRC
  MRC in the News
  Support the MRC
  Planned Giving
  What Others Say
  Take Action
  Gala and DisHonors
  Best of NQ Archive
MRC Resources
  Site Search
  Media Addresses
  Contact MRC
  Comic Commentary
  MRC Bookstore
  Job Openings
  News Division
  NewsBusters Blog
  Business & Media Institute
  Culture and Media Institute

Support the MRC


What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

Tell a friend about this site

June 1997


Issue Analysis: Big Business vs. Small Business on Prime Time
Hollywood Hates Success

The Media Research Center's Free Market Project this month published Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Time's World of Commerce, a study of 17 weeks of prime time programming aired over 26-month period from 1995 through early 1997. (Researchers analyzed a total of 863 episodes of sitcoms, dramas, and made- for-TV movies.) The study found that business owners and executives on prime time television are caricatured as evil more than members of any other occupation or profession, and are rarely portrayed as honest citizens who contribute to the betterment of society. Specifically, the study found that 29.2 percent of all criminal characters are business owners or executives.

This is a far higher percentage than for any other occupation, even for such career criminals as mobsters and gang members, who made up 9.7 percent of the criminal characters. Doctors committed 4.1 percent of all TV crimes, followed by government officials at 3.9 percent and police officers at 3.5 percent. Lawyers made up one of the most positively portrayed professions, committing only one percent of TV crimes.

Looking further at the data, another tendency becomes apparent. Some businessmen are better than others in the eyes of Hollywood. Small business owners, while not portrayed heroically, are depicted in a distinctly less negative light than big business owners or corporate executives. Businessmen, it seems, are acceptable until they become too successful. Or, put another way, corruption, rather than providing a quality product or service at a reasonable price, is the only path TV business characters take to success. This bias against bigger businesses is apparent on many levels:

Murders. There were 65 business characters who murdered during the study period. Fully 47 (72.3 percent) of these were big business owners or executives. Only 18 (27.7 percent) were small business owners. This even though small business characters were more common (424) than big business characters (302). A total of 15.6 percent of big business characters were murderers (47 of 302) compared to 4.2 percent of small business characters (18 of 424).

Many of the big businessmen murdered to enhance the profitability of their companies. On an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger (CBS), the Agri-Feed Company unleashes a poisonous feed additive onto a Cherokee Indian reservation. The owner of the company murdered his corporate counsel, who tried to go to the law to stop him, and kills many Indians. Why? "Billions in future profits, for the lives of a few Cherokees," he rationalizes. On an episode of Diagnosis Murder (CBS), two business partners (with a doctor) dream up an insurance scam involving the faked death of one of the business partners. When one of the business partners gets cold feet, the other kills him.

Many big business murderers committed multiple crimes. A polygamist stockbroker was murdered by a corporate vice president on the May 3, 1996 Diagnosis Murder. On the November 7, 1995 NYPD Blue (ABC), a Wall Street commodities broker was both a serial rapist and a murderer. And on the May 1, 1996 Law & Order (NBC), a large shoe manufacturer murdered one of the co-ed call girls he had hired for his clients. Small business murderers on TV were both less gruesome and less common.

Cheating to get ahead. Of the total of 731 business characters during the study period (the size of the business for five were unknown), 210 (28.7 percent) cheated others to get ahead. Big business owners and executives cheated 139 times while only 71 small business characters cheated. A total of 46 percent (139 of 302) of big business characters cheated to get ahead, compared to 16.7 percent (71 of 424) of small business characters.

For instance, on the November 4, 1995 JAG (then on NBC) a defense contractor's defective, but profitable, aircraft device resulted in the death of a pilot. The contractor was unremorseful: "Everybody's got a family to feed, Lieutenant, even people who work for corporations." The contractor threatened to go to the press with a fabricated sex scandal story about the pilot, hoping to embarrass the Air Force and the pilot's family into dropping the investigation. "I don't want to tarnish the memory of a brave man or embarrass his family," the contractor said, "but I intend to protect Macroplex from investigation...How far I have to go to do that is up to you."

Characters who owned businesses of all sizes engaged in questionable marketing practices. The owner of an electronics shop, on the February 3, 1997 Cosby (CBS), advertised a sale on satellite dishes. Omitted from the ad was any mention of the mail-in rebate to get the sale price or the hefty installation charge.

Contributing to society. Business characters were portrayed less often contributing to society through their work than they were cheating to get ahead. Only 183 of the 731 business characters (25 percent) were depicted as such. But here, too, there was a difference between the portrayals of big and small businesses. More than 84 percent (155) of the business characters portrayed as meeting society's needs were small business characters; only 28 big business characters did so. A total of 36.6 percent (155 of 424) of small business characters provided some benefit to society, compared to 9.3 percent (28 of 302) of big business characters.

But even with small business characters, when businesses were shown meeting society's needs, it was less often an integral part of the plot than merely a backdrop for the story. ABC's Ellenoften showed the lead character, who owned a book store/coffee shop, interacting with customers as a prop, while the important dialogue revolved around her social life. Similar settings included a small airline on Wings (NBC), a local bar on Melrose Place (Fox), and a general store and saloon on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (CBS).

Often, though, TV businesses didn't have to serve customers to succeed. On the November 4, 1996 NBC movie Buried Secrets, a gas station owner quipped, "My prices are too high, my gas is watered down, and I don't wash windows. The owner of a Christmas tree lot, on the July 7, 1995 Step by Step, told his employees: " Good news is, people tend to turn a little sentimental around Christmastime, so prey on their emotions."

Those in the entertainment industry defend themselves against charges of anti-business bias by arguing that they are merely portraying fears about business that already exist in the public. "We need villains," an industry insider told Fortune magazine for a July 7 story about the MRC's study. "And if we portray businessmen as not caring about society or their employees, would we be all wrong?"

It's true that there are negative stereotypes about big business owners and corporate executives. But there are also negative stereotypes about other occupations, such as ambulance-chasing lawyers and power-hungry government bureaucrats. Hollywood manages to restrain itself and not play up those stereotypes on a regular basis. Business, especially big business, isn't so fortunate. There is, simply, an undeniable and unmistakable bias in Hollywood against society's innovators and wealth creators.

This issue analysis is adapted from Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Time's World of Commerce, a Media Research Center Special Report. To see the full report, visit the MRC's web site at www.mediaresearch.org.


Rich Noyes


Home | News Division | Bozell Columns | CyberAlerts 
Media Reality Check | Notable Quotables | Contact the MRC | Subscribe

Founded in 1987, the MRC is a 501(c) (3) non-profit research and education foundation
 that does not support or oppose any political party or candidate for office.

Privacy Statement

Media Research Center
325 S. Patrick Street
Alexandria, VA 22314