For American Businessmen, Primetime is Crimetime

     On primetime television, the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the orange prison jumpsuit.

     Long after executives from Enron, WorldCom, and HealthSouth first graced the 24-hour news cycle, the four major networks have outdone the evening news with anti-business themes. In “ripped from the headlines” programming on shows like NBC’s “Law and Order,” you were 21 times more likely to be kidnapped or murdered at the hands of a businessman than the mob.

     This anti-business agenda in entertainment television was uncovered by a new Business & Media Institute study, “Bad Company.” That analysis looked at 129 episodes from Nielsen’s 12 highest-rated dramas during the “sweeps” months of May and November 2005. Sweeps season is a critical time for Hollywood to put its best foot forward in pursuit of ratings and advertising dollars.

     For an industry that thrives on irony, it’s ironic that TV used its most valuable sales opportunity to bash the very businessmen who help make it successful. Out of the 39 NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX episodes that included plots or characters relevant to business, 77 percent cast businessmen in a negative light. NBC’s three “Law and Order” franchises were particularly harsh on the private sector. While half the felonies in the series were committed by businessmen, not a single narrative portrayed heroes or role models from the private sector.

     In the May 4, 2005, “Law and Order” episode “Sport of Kings,” the murder of a jockey led the police to Edgar Varick, the CEO of a small manufacturing firm and an avid horse racer. Varick not only bought the $3 million horse from Saudi Arabia with the company pension fund, but he also killed the jockey who uncovered the scheme. The thoroughbred would have made a big return on Varick’s “investment,” or so the CEO would have had his employees believe.

     CBS’s “CSI: Miami” blamed the video game industry as the catalyst for a violent crime spree. In the Nov. 21 episode, “Urban Hellraisers,” the president of TransInternational refused to cooperate with police after being told his video games were spurring a cult of teenagers to violence. “I have a board to answer to … stockholders. My hands are tied,” he said. Not only did the show blame the company’s leadership for encouraging violence to sell more video games, it also accused them of trafficking in automatic weapons.


     The caricatures of murdering businessmen didn’t end there. On entertainment TV, a loan-sharking venture capitalist used his golf swing on the luxury cars belonging to spendthrift executives he had funded. And, when male supervisors weren’t killing their female employees to cover up affairs, they were outsourcing that dirty work to their lackeys.

     During the two sweeps months, you were five times more likely to be kidnapped or murdered at the hands of a businessman than terrorists, gangs, or even the mob. It’s enough to convince the risk averse to join the Peace Corps. After all, they’d be safer in Darfur than in an office space.

     Only one show featured overwhelmingly pro-business narratives and characters: NBC’s “Las Vegas.” If there’s anything we can learn from “Las Vegas,” it’s that the networks are indeed capable of delivering clever, innovative businessmen and intriguing “pro-business” plots. The problem is that they rarely ever appear, unless the subject is a vice like gambling. Television should be able to look beyond SinCity to find role models.

     It’s mind-boggling that show business could be so anti-business. How can a multibillion-dollar industry be antagonistic to a cornerstone of American society? After all, the networks know how to chase down a dime. They are good at marketing, cross-promotion, advertising and other aspects of commerce. “Law & Order” and “CSI” have shown how that success can explode from one show to several. It’s hypocritical to use a successful business model to undermine the free enterprise system that helped create it.

     But that success begs the question: Are TV execs hypocrites, or just plain out of touch with reality? Either way, the blistering network portrayals of businessmen who lie, cheat and kill make one miss the old days of simple class envy.

     While it’s easy to scoff at the idea of primetime TV as “art,” it’s true that television businessmen don’t imitate real life. If TV networks have the creative capacity to turn everyday businessmen into common criminals, then certainly they are able to give us a few more heroes.        

            Charles Simpson is a research analyst with the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.