Crooks in Suits: Businessmen are TV’s Favorite Bad Guys

by Timothy Lamer, World Magazine


From oil tycoon J.R. Ewing in Dallas to corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, businessmen have been Hollywood’s stock villains for decades. An occasional doctor, lawyer, mechanic, or teacher will be the bad guy in a TV drama or movie, but studies show that Hollywood holds a particular hostility toward the corporate world.

The latest evidence: a study, titled “Bad Company,” released last month by the Business & Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. Analyzing the top 12 prime-time dramas during last year’s May and November sweeps periods, BMI found that 77 percent of the plots involving business were negative toward businessmen and commerce.

Business characters weren’t just run-of-the-mill lowlifes, either. They committed 21 times more fictional kidnappings and murders than terrorists or gang members did, and they committed almost as many serious felonies as drug dealers, child molesters, and serial killers combined. On NBC’s three Law & Order shows, almost half of the felons (13 of 27) were businessmen.

Even when corporate characters were not committing murders or other felonies, they were hardly heroic-unlike doctors or other characters. “Businessmen rarely helped solve society’s problems through their skill or dedication,” the BMI study reports. Of the 12 shows BMI studied, only one, “NBC’s Las Vegas-set ironically in the notorious ‘Sin City’-offered narratives in which businessmen confronted challenges with skill and creativity instead of murder or sex.”

Theories abound about why script writers and producers are so eager to frame corporate types as criminals. Is it because businessmen are not as vocal as other groups in their own defense? (Rather than start letter-writing campaigns to networks, businessmen instead underwrite these attacks with their advertising dollars.) Or is it because Hollywood’s dominant liberal philosophy doesn’t view business owners and corporate managers as valid contributors to society?

Regardless of the reason for the avalanche of negative depictions, the net result is art that distorts rather than reflects reality while subtly teaching children that business cannot be an honorable calling.

In dreaming up villains, is it really too much to ask that Hollywood show a little less ideology and a little more creativity?