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
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
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
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