A mirror cracked

Dec. 21, 2004
Prime times portrayal of business reflects societys attitudes toward executives -- positive and negative.

A recent analysis of 17 weeks of prime-time television by the Media Research Center, a conservative think tank in Virginia, discovered that TV businessmen commit more crimes (29.2%), including murders (30.4%), than do members of any other profession. TV businessmen are also more likely to cheat (28.7%) than contribute to society (25%). As if that werent enough, the representatives of big business are even more reprehensible than those of small business, with corporate executives committing 72.3% of all business-related TV murders even as 46% of them cheated their way up the corporate ladder.

I thought all this was kind of funny -- after all, who knew just how interesting, important, and deadly all of us corporate types were -- but the studys earnest authors believe otherwise. Understandably cranky after watching 863 sitcoms, dramas, and made-for-TV movies, they conclude that these statistics and others prove that "prime time television shows a cynicism toward business that it does not show toward any other job or profession. . . . Prime time television should consider the possible effects this bias could have on society."

Well, I hate to pick a fight with experts, particularly those whove just spent a year locked in a room with a VCR, but I think televisions so-called "bias" toward business is more flattering than harmful. In fact, it wasnt so long ago that business ownership and executive positions were considered anything but glamorous. The perception of business was that a career making and selling things was safe but boring, just the thing for an unimaginative man in a gray flannel suit. Popular culture, however, has rediscovered the excitement in entrepreneurship and management. Televisions current obsession with business villains -- similar to the obsession mystery novels used to have for English butler villains -- is less a "bias" against executives or servants than it is a reflection of societys attitudes, in this case an aspiration for glamour.

Which is why another of the studys findings is harder to ignore. In reviewing televisions treatment of the workplace, the study cites the following statistics:

Work Messages Number of Portrayals
Hard work pays off 54
Work interferes with family life 48
Hard work is unimportant 46
Bosses are mean or lazy 44
Knowing right people advances career 43
Bosses are source of slapstick humor 31
Sexism occurs in the workplace 23
Sex with boss advances career 19
Dishonesty doesnt pay off 19
Money is the only reason to work 18
Work can conflict with conscience 18
Workplace is primarily a social gathering 18
Money isnt the only reason to work 17
Cant trust co-workers 16

Whats striking about this table is that almost all the messages are negative. But while the authors conclude that these result from televisions hatred of business, it more likely reflects the anger that many workers now feel toward their companies. Television has always been more a mirror than a crystal ball for society. In an era when loyalty to employees has too often been replaced with efficiency at any cost, what other reflection of the workplace could we expect to see?

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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