Getting The Business

Over at Samizdata, Tom Burroughes asks:

Here’s a poser for today – Have any fellow bloggers come across an example on a television drama programme in the UK which has ever portrayed a businessman or woman in straightforwardly good light, with no qualifications, ifs or buts? I haven’t. Check out the average British soap shown mid-evening to see what I am getting at. It is pure negativity towards any activity remotely creative or positive. And of course we soak it up because when coming home from a hard day at the office, factory or wherever, our mental faculties are at their least sharp.

It’s not just the UK. I’ve had a long-standing theory about this, but never taken the time to do the statistical research necessary to validate it. I think that one of the reasons that film and television writers seem to despise capitalism and business is that they themselves work for one of the most vile and cutthroat industries on the planet, and they extrapolate that experience to conclude that all businesses and businesspeople are like the ones for whom they toil. Rarely will you see a realistic story about an industrial concern, because the writers have absolutely no experience or familiarity with such a business.

Think about it. When a business is depicted on television, is there some sort of pattern as to what kind of business it is? I think so. When the kind of business is not crucial to the premise of the show (e.g., LA Law, NYPD Blue), but is merely a backdrop for the stories to play out, they are predominantly businesses that would employ people who write for a living–newspapers, entertainment industry, advertising.

Especially advertising. Cast your mind over sitcoms over the past three decades, in which the work environment plays a key dramatic (or comedic) role, and I suspect that you’ll realize that the protagonists work at ad agencies out of all proportion to the number of people who do so in real life. Examples: Bewitched, Thirty Something, etc. (One notable exception that occurs to me, which was really out of character, was that Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons was an aerospace engineer in Southern California. I still think that’s neat.)

Assuming that this is correct, and not just an impression, I suspect that it’s because television writers, in order to make ends meet between sought-after television or film-writing jobs, work at such places, because there’s much more demand for it, and it engages a similar talent. It’s easier to write what you know, so it’s natural for them to use such businesses as a foil for their comedy and drama. And in conversations that I’ve had with friends and acquaintances in that business (and in the entertainment industry), the common theme is how terrible it is to work in such places, and how scum almost invariably rises to the top. And this isn’t surprising, because firms like that, which are in the very business of creating fiction and image, will value and reward people who are good at that, particularly in selling themselves. And such people, in fact, may not be good at very much else.

In a company that manufactures a physical product, incompetence, lack of realism, and management inability can quickly result in tangible, measurable failure. On the other hand, an entertainment or advertising firm will often promote those who excel at unreality, even if they have no ethics or management capability. So it’s not surprising that such a place can be a terrible place to work. And if television and film writers’ only exposure to the business world is in such businesses, perhaps it’s not surprising that they portray business in such a bad light.