TV's 'Evil' Businessmen

By Graham, Tim | The World and I, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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TV's 'Evil' Businessmen

Graham, Tim, The World and I

Television critics have complained for decades about the crude usage of caricatures and stereotypes that demean women, blacks, Latinos, homosexuals, and the disabled. But one stereotype seems to have no lobby in Hollywood to complain: the businessman, who is often depicted on the tube as a character so selfish and greedy that he'll lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what he wants.

One of the first notable critiques of the evil businessman stereotype came from Ben Stein, a former Nixon White House aide. In his book The View From Sunset Boulevard, Stein told the story of hanging out in Hollywood in the late 1970s with television executives. He also reviewed 200 episodes of TV programs from the 1979--80 season.

After all that content analysis, he wrote:

"One of the clearest messages of television is that businessmen are bad, evil people, and that big businessmen are the worst of all."

"... the murderous, duplicitous, cynical businessman is about the only kind of businessman there is on TV adventure shows, just as the cunning, trickster businessman shares the stage with the pompous buffoon businessman in situation comedies."

In 1981, the Media Institute followed up with its own study, which found that businessmen were portrayed on TV as "crooks, con men, and clowns."

The late 1970s was a fertile time for an antibusiness mentality, a heyday for Ralph Nader--inspired advocates who warned of the dangers of multinational corporations. The energy crisis led to hostile news coverage as well as entertainment programming against industry, especially those involved in energy, like oil and nuclear power conglomerates (e.g., The China Syndrome, an anti-nuclear-power movie that piggybacked on the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident).

In other words, the culture was ripe for an evening soap opera starring a nasty Texas oil executive. The J.R. Ewing phenomenon was born.

Time for J.R.

CBS premiered Dallas in 1978. Television critic Horace Newcomb found Dallas a natural hit at "a time of decline, of recession and restriction, a time of real trouble."

As the decline took its toll on Jimmy Carter's political fortunes in 1980, Newcomb found the incoming GOP presidential team had a friend on television: "The Reagan administration promises style and power, an understanding of boardroom politics, big money, and smooth deals. At the moment, J.R. and the glamour of high finance are more intriguing to us-- and offer more--than the gunfighter's purity of mission."

While conservative critics saw Hollywood presenting free enterprise as a wicked game of "king of the mountain," left-wing media critics, inspired by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, saw television as profoundly conservative, reinforcing the "hegemony" of the capitalist system, allowing a modicum of social criticism within narrow boundaries of expression. The proletariat was allowed to let off steam at nasty bosses, as long as the revolution was postponed.

In 1984, Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes suggested that left-wing theorists could interpret Dallas as hegemonic either way:

"If the money and muscle of the Ewing family is an invitation to the fantasies of social mobility and the supposed "American way," then identification with the Dallas characters will serve the purpose. But what about those who see in Dallas only a reminder of how much better they are without power? It takes only the slightest agility to see that this is even more hegemonic. It is a message to stay down, and enjoy the better of the possible worlds, letting the unhappy few take care of the rest."

News coverage echoed the suspicious tone of entertainment. The research team of Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda Lichter studied news coverage of the oil industry with the title Looking for J.R. They found that:

Reports of oil company profit increases outnumbered those of decreases by 15 to 1.

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