Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Time's World of Commerce

Beware of Capitalism and Investing!

When capitalism was discussed -- especially discussion involving development and investing -- the networks were almost universally hostile. Development was depicted as destructive rather than creative. On the February 3, 1996 Touched By an Angel (CBS), a son wanted to tear down his father's 30-year-old jazz club and build a more profitable business. Tess, the supervising angel, encouraged the father to maintain the jazz club. "Times change," she explained. "Humans call it progress. Sometimes progress is progress. Most times it's an excuse to tear something down." Murder, She Wrote (CBS) also had father-son conflict over development on its May 7, 1995 episode. And again, it was made clear to viewers that the anti-development elder was correct. The father was a fisherman protesting industrialization in Ireland. His son rebuked him: "There's a lot of people like you who see no future beyond the salmon, and that view will ruin Ireland." The father responded: "Speak your heart if you have one. Laura tells me it's withered in the world of commerce and industry."

Prime time often likened crime to business, as if the one were a natural component of the other. A homeless scam artist on the October 12, 1995 New York News pretended to be an amputee to get money from sympathetic strangers. "How's my sittin' on my leg any different from some deodorant corporation telling you if you use their b.o. juice you're going to fall in love?" he asked. "Advertising, young friend, that is the American way." When a woman asked her daughter's pimp about his future plans on the January 9, 1995 ABC movie Fighting for My Daughter, he answered: "I'm probably going to go to business school and prostitute myself for some large corporation." A college student defended her escort service, on the December 2, 1995 Sisters (NBC), as "the capitalistic system at its best: supply and demand." On the July 14, 1996 New York Undercover (Fox), a drug dealer saluted as he referred to his making over $25,000 in three days as "the American way."

The only characters who expressed confidence in "the American way" without being cynical were immigrants. On the September 7, 1995 New York Undercover, for instance, a cop's Puerto Rican father was saving to open a business and told his son: "Having your own business; that's what it's all about."

Investment was particularly skewered. Investing money, as depicted on prime time TV, is a dishonest way to make money, and those who work in investment jobs are not to be trusted. There were a total of 22 characters who were investment professionals, such as stockbrokers. Of those, 10 (45.5 percent) were criminals, seven (31.1 percent) were murderers, 13 (59.1 percent) cheated to get ahead, and none were shown meeting the needs of society through their work.

Some were just greedy. A stockbroker on the February 1, 1997 Early Edition (CBS), for example, thought the only benefit of a newspaper that tells the future was to make money, while his friend used it to prevent human tragedies. Some were willing to break the law for money. On the November 9, 1995 Living Single (Fox), an investment banker promoted an investment as "10,000 tax-free dollars." When asked how the money would be tax-free, he replied: "I'll find a way."

Others were even more villainous. On the May 7, 1995 Matlock (ABC), two corporate raiders murdered a homeless man and framed a rival takeover specialist who was competing with them to gain control of a company. This wasn't their first shady deal. One of them bragged about his partner's savvy recent purchase: "One week later, guess who gets bought out by [another company]? Tripled our money, just like that! The guy's a genius!" A woman responded: "Or maybe he just has access to the right information."

Stockholders didn't fare too well, either. A wealthy investor on the February 5, 1995 Murder, She Wrote (CBS) planned to kill his wife for insurance money after a series of investments headed south. On the May 8, 1995 NBC movie Robin Cook's Virus, three stockholders in a health insurance company attempted to kill their competition by spreading a deadly virus throughout HMO-affiliated hospitals.

The only positive portrayal of investing was on the April 6, 1995 Martin (Fox). The lead character inherited $10,000 and hastily opened a restaurant. His girlfriend wanted him to invest the money instead. The restaurant did poorly, proving her point that it would have been more secure to invest in stocks than to start a business he knew nothing about.