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Businessmen Behaving Badly: Prime Time's World of Commerce

More Cheaters Than Contributors

More than one out of four TV business owners and executives -- 210 out of 731, or 28.7 percent -- cheated to get ahead. Only 183, or 25 percent, were shown meeting the needs of society through their business.

The CEO of a nuclear power plant on the February 2, 1997 Simpsons (Fox) captured the prevailing attitude of TV business characters: "If an opportunity arose for taking a small shortcut, you wouldn't be averse to taking it, would you?" When his buffoonish employee mumbled affirmation, the CEO responded, "I also thought there was far too much hysteria these days for so-called cheating." On the November 4, 1995 JAG (then on NBC), a defense contractor's defective, but profitable, aircraft device resulted in the death of a pilot. The contractor was unremorseful: "Everybody's got a family to feed, Lieutenant, even people who work for corporations." The contractor threatened to go to the press with a fabricated sex scandal story about the pilot, hoping to embarrass the Air Force and the pilot's family into dropping the investigation. "I don't want to tarnish the memory of a brave man or embarrass his family, " the contractor said, "but I intend to protect Macroplex from investigation...How far I have to go to do that is up to you."

TV business owners and executives also employed questionable marketing practices, as shown on the February 3, 1997 Cosby (CBS). The owner of an electronics shop advertised a sale on satellite dishes. Omitted from the ad was any mention of the mail-in rebate to get the sale price or the hefty installation charge.

When business characters were shown meeting the needs of society instead of cheating, it was less often an integral part of the plot than merely a backdrop for the story. ABC's Ellen often showed the lead character, who owns a book store/coffee shop, interacting with customers as a prop, while the important dialogue revolved around her social life. Similar settings included a small airline service on NBC's Wings, a bar on Fox's Melrose Place, and a general store and saloon on CBS's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Often, though, business characters didn't have to serve customers at all to succeed. The lead character on Roseanne (ABC) co-owned a diner. On the February 8, 1995 episode, she got tired of dealing with customers. Sitting down, she explained: "Somebody has to sit down and handle all the complaints about the slow business." On the November 4, 1996 NBC movie Buried Secrets, a gas station owner quipped, "My prices are too high, my gas is watered down, and I don't wash windows."

The owner of a Christmas tree lot on the July 7, 1995 Step by Step (ABC) told his employees: "Now listen up. You want to sell Christmas trees? The first thing you have to do is forget all of that holiday spirit, peace on earth, goodwill towards men jive. We are here to make money. Good news is, people tend to turn a little sentimental around Christmastime, so prey on their emotions." A tennis pro shop owner on the January 30, 1997 Seinfeld (NBC) advised customers on buying the best equipment despite his knowing nothing about tennis. It didn't hurt his business at all.