Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Time's World of Commerce

TV Characters At Work

The workplace as shown on prime time TV was bleak. Researchers catalogued messages about work and the workplace during the study period. (For this section, researchers considered all places of employment, not just businesses.) TV characters advanced in their careers more often through manipulative means (90 times) than through hard work, experience, and education (68). (For a complete breakdown of prime time's work messages, see Appendix VI.)

In 43 cases, workers advanced because they knew the right people. On the July 16, 1996 Roseanne (ABC), for example, a boss hired his son-in-law, saying: "We looked at a lot of applicants; we found out that you were the only one married to my daughter." Nineteen characters used sex to advance their careers. One of the lead characters on the June 8, 1995 Hope & Gloria quit her job at a beauty salon for a better offer. Her boss asked, "What did you do, give him a quickie in his trailer?" Gloria responded: "At least I didn't marry the owner of a beauty salon on his death bed." When the writer/producer of a prime-time soap on the December 3, 1995 Almost Perfect (CBS) was asked by an intern where she gets her ideas, she replied: "The key is just knowing who to sleep with."

On 16 occasions, workers advanced by making a coworker or boss look bad or incompetent. Rachel, a character on the October 11, 1995 Central Park West (CBS), wanted another character's job as publisher of a magazine. She leaked stories to other publications in order to make the current publisher appear disloyal. Schmoozing was the method of choice for five characters. When the station manager reminded employees of upcoming employee evaluations, on the February 5, 1997 NewsRadio (NBC), one employee said: "Oh, my God, I completely forgot to suck up."

In 68 shows, characters employed more ethical methods to succeed, such as hard work and dedication. On the January 30, 1997 Living Single (Fox), viewers were reminded that the publisher and editor of a magazine earned a living delivering pizzas while starting the magazine in her spare time. Her sacrifice was rewarded when the magazine won an award and was honored at a ceremony. A young man repeatedly entered lotteries in order to strike it rich and avoid work on the February 10, 1995 Boy Meets World (ABC). "Come to my store," his father offered. "I'll show you how to earn money."

On 46 occasions, though, characters scoffed at hard work without consequence. On the April 29, 1996 Dave's World (CBS), for instance, a secretary left work at 10:30 in the morning. When her boss objected, she explained: "Yes, but you see I came in an hour early, which is really like three hours early because I'm usually a couple of hours late. Plus, I was going to skip my normal two-hour lunch hour because I was going to leave for a dentist appointment anyway by three, but I canceled it so I could go to the beach. So basically I've already worked a full day."

Managers were prime time's all-purpose court jesters. There were 31 bosses shown who had either not earned their positions or were otherwise good for a laugh. Two salesmen on the April 30, 1996 CBS movie Unforgivable discussed their boss. "He doesn't know crap about sales," one said. "That's probably why they made him manager," the other wisecracked. The owner of a deli on the January 31, 1997 Dave's World, attended the funeral of a man who choked to death while eating at his deli. Looking at the table of food for the mourners, he asked the widow, "Why didn't you call? I would have catered." The owner of the radio station on NewsRadio (NBC) was easily duped. On the February 5, 1997 episode, he bought a bunch of supposedly authentic props from famous movies that were clearly fakes.

Other managers weren't so benign. Forty-four management characters kept their employees walking on eggshells and abused their power. On the July 16, 1996 Drew Carey Show (ABC), the title character was left to menial tasks after he fired a woman his boss was sleeping with. His boss then wanted Carey to set him up with his friend. "Carey, you've got to talk to Kay," his boss said. "Tell her what a good guy I am. You're her friend, she'll believe you. Make her go out with me, or I don't know what I'll do!" Carey responded: "To tell you the truth, sir, I'm not all that comfortable mixing my personal life with my business life." His boss: "You know, I was actually doing pretty well mixing my personal life with my business life, but then the woman I was seeing was fired by some idiot. Follow me, Carey?" The owner of a modeling agency on the July 15, 1996 Fresh Prince of Bel Air (NBC) intoned, "Ooh, that felt good" as she randomly fired a woman who walked in front of her.

Prime time characters were confronted with ethical dilemmas in their careers 18 times during the study period. Often superiors advised them to go against their consciences. On the July 3, 1995 Murphy Brown (CBS), the lead character argued against sensationalistic coverage of a murder investigation on the grounds that it would paint the suspect as guilty before a trial. Her producer didn't care: "Hey, we do this all the time. You think that businessman whose life you destroyed on last week's show thought he was treated fairly?" When a judge on the October 7, 1995 Home Court (NBC) refused to bend the rules for a celebrity, another judge gloated: "This is exactly why you are still stuck down here in family court while I went on to become a big-time criminal court justice."

Prime time workplaces often were less than family friendly. Forty-eight characters struggled with juggling work and family. "I'd hate to see the personal overwhelm the job," a supervisor warned a doctor who was raising her infant niece on the December 7, 1995 ER (NBC). "To build a career you have to take on more responsibility." The doctor shot back: "I have taken on plenty of responsibility! So you'll have to forgive me if I don't stay after school these days to work for extra credit." A hospital chief of staff on the November 6, 1995 Chicago Hope (CBS) worried about the quality of the hospital lawyer's work since he became a single father. The lawyer would have none of it: "I got a job to do, and as much as I prioritize this hospital, I would like to get home before my daughter goes to bed. I'm sure you can appreciate that, if not actually applaud it." On the October 12, 1995 Single Guy (NBC), a businessman complained to his wife: "I've had it with having lunch with [business associates] on my son's time" after his boss required him to entertain clients on weekends.

The workplace was at times portrayed as merely a venue for social gathering, and sex between co-workers was not uncommon. Eighteen characters actively pursued their social lives at work and fifteen other characters had sexual relationships with co-workers. (Nineteen more had sex with their boss or clients.) The sexual tension was so strong between an editor and a columnist on the February 3, 1997 Ink (CBS) that they decided, for the sake of the newspaper, to get a hotel room and have sex. "I can write the whole thing off to the paper because it's work-related," the editor sighed. And on some shows, such as Melrose Place, rarely an episode went by in which co-workers didn't have sex with each other. Having sex with co-workers was portrayed in an explicitly negative light only three times. On the January 30, 1997 Single Guy, the show's main character found himself working on an ad campaign with an attractive woman. Though his friends had warned him it was a bad idea, they soon began a sexual relationship. Later, he decided his friends were correct when he discovered he was afraid to tell her he didn't like her idea for the campaign.