Prime-time TV 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 businessmen as posing "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 months and found almost all of the businesspeople were usually 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 episodes that featured business-related plots, for example, 77 percent advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.
Businessmen turned up as kidnappers and murderers 21 times, almost as often as the 23 times totaled by drug dealers, child molesters, serial killers and other hardened criminals put together.
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 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 in his spare time to work with the Boy Scouts is hardly the stuff of gripping crime dramas.
It is not that the people who run TV hate businesspeople but that they love the profits that plots about bad-guy businessmen, among other villains, attract.
It's more fun to watch the cops and prosecutors bring down a pompous rich guy than bring down a common criminal who's already down. Bigger audiences tune in and, 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 story lines he views as anti-capitalist plots are really good old-fashioned morality plays, warnings that even the rich and powerful are not above the law and other ethical behavior. Alas, 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."
Gainor may have a point when he observes that TV networks would not dare offend racial and ethnic minorities these days the way they stereotype businesspeople. Hollywood increasingly has demonized businesspeople since the end of the Cold War. We lost the Commies as an all-purpose enemy and viewers from just about every minority group but the business community complained about ethnic stereotyping of terrorists and other criminals. Yet, Gainor notes, "you don't see businesspeople getting angry about that."
No, we have yet to see the business equivalent of civil rights groups protesting the negative images broadcast by the TV shows that businesses sponsor. But, what would they call it? Maybe the "National Association for the Advancement of Already-Advantaged People"?
I'm trying to picture Donald Trump and Paris Hilton on a picket line with other patrician protestors. It's not easy.
Indeed, if wealthy businesspeople are a "safe" target, it is also because so many bad apples have spoiled life for the rest. We're delighted when Warren Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates make headlines with their generosity, but then we're appalled by the criminal greed of a Ken Lay, Jack Abramoff or Jeffrey 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 Gainor because television 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. Take it from me, kids. You don't have to cut corners or break rules to get ahead.
But, beware of your classmates who think that they do.