Are TV villains bad for business?

July 21, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Prime-time television is largely run by self-hating businesspeople.

That's the implication of a recent study by the Business and Media Institute, a conservative watchdog group that finds America's most popular evening entertainment shows portray businesspeople as "a greater threat than the mob."

Titled "Bad Company," the study looked at the dozen top-rated TV dramas during last year's May and November ratings periods and found almost all of the businesspeople were doing something unethical, cruel or criminal.

Put another way, the businesspeople were committing so much mayhem on shows as diverse as Law & Order and Desperate Housewives that there was hardly anything left for terrorists or mobsters to do.

Out of 39 prime-time episodes that featured business-related plots, for example, 77 percent advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners, according to the institute.

Businessmen turned up as kidnappers and murderers 21 times, almost as often as the 23 times put together by drug dealers, child molesters, serial killers and other hardened criminals.

The study tends to confirm what the institute has long maintained is Hollywood's bias against one of America's most maligned and misunderstood minority groups: business folks.

"In the real world, is the average businessman a murderer, kidnapper and/or philandering backstabber?" the report asks. "If not, why is this the way the businessman is portrayed on television?"

Why? I'll tell you why: It's good for profits.

How many people would have watched Dallas if J. R. Ewing were an "average businessman"? A nice, ethical, self-sacrificing father who volunteers with the Boy Scouts is hardly the stuff of gripping crime drama.

It is not that the businesspeople who run TV hate businesspeople; they love the profits. It's more fun to watch the cops and prosecutors bring down a pompous rich guy than bring down a common criminal who is already down. Bigger audiences tune in, the ratings soar and the sponsors, who also happen to be businesspeople, want more shows just like it. That's what the business world calls a win-win situation.

In a telephone interview, I posed those possibilities to Dan Gainor, director of the Business and Media Institute and author of the study. I proposed that maybe the storylines he views as anti-capitalist are really good old-fashioned morality plays, warnings that even the rich and powerful are not above the law. Alas, Mr. Gainor wasn't buying it.

"If they were morality plays, they would work their way around to showing businesspeople who do good as well as evil," he said. "At least be fair. Sometimes businesspeople do something good."

If rich businesspeople - unlike ethnic and racial minorities - are a "safe" target, it is because so many bad apples have spoiled life for the rest. We are delighted when Warren E. Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates make headlines with their financial generosity, but then we are appalled by the criminal greed of a Kenneth L. Lay, Jack Abramoff or Jeffrey K. Skilling.

If I were a screenwriter, the dog-eat-dog world of business, with its shiny cars, big money, Machiavellian schemes and elastic ethics, whether in the service of stockholders or one's own personal kitty, would offer a mother lode of story material. A few business folks in the audience might complain. Others would be taking notes.

That disturbs Mr. Gainor, because TV plays a powerful role in shaping social attitudes, especially in children. Over time, he said, "our children will think you have to lie, cheat or murder to get ahead."

Let's hope not.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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