Television programming with business themes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From the beginning, narrative fiction television tended to portray and reinforce the division between the private domestic sphere and the public workplace. Most fiction programming either deals with a specific workplace or occupation or deploys the workplace as the “other” space defining the limits of home and family. Television has thus had a significant influence on the understanding of the relationship between family and work in American culture.

Although there are antecedents, one of the trends in television programming during the early twenty-first century has been the proliferation of “reality” shows. Actually, they are highly competitive game shows with winners and losers. Before their broadcast, the shows are thoroughly edited, musically scored, and often have voiceover commentary by the participants after the fact. One of the most successful is Apprentice, The (TV show)The Apprentice. The scenario of this show, which began airing in 2004, is that a group of sixteen young men and women perform a series of business-related challenges conceived by celebrity entrepreneur Donald Trump, DonaldTrump and his associates. Every week, at least one of the competitors is eliminated, and Trump tells the person, “You’re fired!” The winner receives a six-figure job with one of Trump’s companies. However, The Apprentice is atypical of television programming with business themes, which generally falls into three broad categories.Television;business-themed shows

The Workplace

Domestic comedies such as Father Knows Best (1954-1963) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) featured nuclear families in which the father had a steady job and the mother stayed at home. Rarely, if ever, did the father’s job have a connection with the story. One of those rarities was the episode of All in the Family (1971-1983) “The Insurance Is Canceled,” in which the father, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), worked as the foreman of a factory’s loading dock. In a cost-cutting move, Archie’s bosses ordered him to select one of his subordinates to be laid off. A bigot, Archie made his decision based on race rather than merit. He chose to lay off a highly productive Puerto Rican rather than a lazy white man.

In Dick Van Dyke Show, The (TV show)The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, had a wife and son and worked as head writer of a popular television variety show. The creator, Carl Reiner, based the show on his own life as a writer for the famous comedian Sid Caesar. The story lines were split between conflicts involving Petrie’s office and his family.

Steve Carell (center), Jenna Fischer (left), and the rest of the cast of The Office celebrate their nomination for a Screen Actors Guild award in 2007.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Petrie’s wife, Laura, was portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore, who went on to star in her own show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (TV show)The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), which was mostly set in the newsroom of WJM, a Minneapolis television station. Mary Richards, Moore’s character, was hired as associate producer (later producer) of the Six O’Clock News, although one of the jokes in the first episode was that the position initially paid slightly less than a secretary and considerably less than when a man held the job. However, as the character grew, she took on more and more responsibility. In the final episode, “The Last Show,” the entire news staff was laid off, with the exception of one person, because of poor ratings. The joke was that management kept the incompetent news anchor, Ted Baxter (portrayed by Ted Knight).

WKRP in Cincinnati WKRP in Cincinnati (TV show)(1978-1982) was critically acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of life at a radio station. One of its best-known and most acclaimed episodes, “Turkeys Away,” concerned a promotion that became a public relations disaster. Based on an actual incident at an Atlanta radio station, the station dropped live turkeys out of a helicopter over a shopping center as a Thanksgiving Day giveaway, unaware that turkeys cannot fly. The turkeys were killed, and the shoppers were endangered. In some episodes, the characters faced issues that real businesspeople face, including the need for profits in “Mama’s Review,” market share in “Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered,” and unions in “The Union.”

Cheers Cheers (TV show)(1982-1993) was set in a Boston bar based on the Bull and Finch Pub in that city. It portrayed the relationship between a business and its customers. Sam Malone (portrayed by Ted Danson) was the owner during the first five seasons. Between the fifth and sixth seasons, the bar was acquired by a large corporation, Malone was demoted to bartender (although he was eventually promoted to manager), and the plots of several shows were driven by the culture shock of the transition from a small business to a corporate environment. Tom Skerritt had a recurring role in the sixth season as Evan Drake, CEO of the corporation. In the eighth and ninth seasons, Roger Rees had a recurring role as Robin Colcord, a millionaire who was eventually arrested for insider trading. During those seasons, Rebecca Howe (played by Kirstie Alley) was an ambitious businesswoman who dated only men who could advance her career. After losing her job as the bar’s manager, she became a cocktail waitress and in the last season married a plumber.

Two twenty-first century incarnations of the workplace theme are Office, The (TV show)The Office and Mad Men (TV show)Mad Men. Based on a British sitcom of the same name, The Office is set in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, office of a paper company named Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) is the clueless manager. Story lines have included the issues of downsizing, health insurance, sexual harassment, performance reviews, e-mail monitoring, drug testing, and safety training. Set during the 1960’s, Mad Men takes place in the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York. Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is the agency’s creative director with a secret past. Several of the episodes involve dealing with the agency’s clients, especially Richard M. Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign. Another recurring theme is the status of women in the workplace in that period.

Businesspeople as Heroes and Villains

In many crime dramas, businesspeople, especially men, appear as the villains. In addition to the usual murders, rapes, assaults, and robberies, they are often shown to be guilty of rent gouging, toxic waste dumping, union busting, and manufacturing shoddy or even dangerous products. In the Lou Grant (1977-1982) episode “Goop,” for instance, a reporter goes undercover to investigate a company suspected of the illegal dumping of chemicals. In The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985), the recurring villain was Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg, owner of the local bank.

The United States endured two energy crises during the 1970’s, so the Petroleum industryoil industry was much in the news at the time. On Dallas (TV show)Dallas (1978-1991), the villain that the viewers loved to hate was J. R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman), a Texas oilman. He sought power, acted without scruples, and manipulated other people into doing his will. He was more a caricature than a true character. One of the story lines during the show’s early years concerned offshore oil leases in Southeast Asia. Another ongoing story line throughout the show’s entire run was the struggle to control the family company, Ewing Oil, and battles with another company called Westar were featured during the middle and late seasons. A merger with another oil company was the subject of the episode “Royal Marriage,” and purchasing a refinery was the subject of “Taste of Success.”

On Dynasty (TV show)Dynasty (1981-1989), Blake Carrington (portrayed by John Forsythe) was also an oilman, but he lived in Denver. Whereas J. R. did business in Southeast Asia, Blake did business in the Middle East and China. In the early episodes, he was just as ruthless and unscrupulous as J. R., but he softened as the years went by. The role of the villain was filled by his former wife, Alexis (played by Joan Collins), who was introduced in the second season. However, the soap opera aspects of both shows overwhelmed their business aspects. Dynasty in particular was known for its high campiness. The message, if there was one, was that while greed was not necessarily good, it was definitely glamorous.

One of the most sympathetic portrayals of a fictional businessperson on television took place on Rich Man, Poor Man (TV miniseries)Rich Man, Poor Man (1976-1977), a miniseries based on the 1970 novel by Irwin Shaw. The parents of Rudy Jordache (played by Peter Strauss) owned a bakery, where Rudy worked after school and on weekends. He went to college and became a multimillionaire by the age of thirty-five by capitalizing on the middle-class flight to the suburbs during the 1950’s.


Events in business history have been dramatized in television movies and miniseries. The anthology series The Great Adventure (1963-1965), for instance, consisted entirely of docudramas from American history. The episodes “Six Wagons to the Sea” concerned a railroad and financial scandal in the nineteenth century and “The Colonel from Connecticut” was about the drilling of the first oil well in 1854.

Many docudramas feature people suffering disasters. In Bitter Harvest (docudrama)Bitter Harvest (1981), Ron Howard played a farmer who discovered that his animal feed was contaminated by a chemical. Based on the 1978 book by Frederick Halbert and Sandra Halbert, the show was more critical of government health officials and regulators than of the manufacturer of the feed, although there was enough blame to go around. Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (docudrama)Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982) had a similar theme. Marsha Mason played the title character, a housewife who discovered that her house and those of seven hundred other people were built on a chemical waste disposal site.

In Damaged Care (docudrama)Damaged Care (2002), the target was the Insurance industryinsurance industry, especially health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Dr. Linda Peeno (Laura Dern) was a medical reviewer for an HMO who was under pressure from her superiors to deny legitimate claims, but she eventually became a whistle-blower.

One of the best docudramas about business was Barbarians at the Gate (docudrama)Barbarians at the Gate (1993), based on the 1990 book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Written by Larry Gelbart, it concerned the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in 1988, which was the largest in history up until that time. Chief executive officer F. Ross Johnson (played by James Garner) wanted to take the company private and enlisted Shearson Lehman Hutton, then a division of American Express. However, Henry Kravis (played by Jonathan Pryce) of Kohlberg, Kravis, and Roberts also wanted a piece of the action, and their power struggle drove much of the plot.

The origin of the personal Computer industrycomputer industry was shown in Pirates of Silicon Valley, The (docudrama)The Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999). It starred Noah Wylie as Steve Jobs, Joey Slotnick as Steve Wozniak, Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates, and Josh Hopkins as Paul Allen. None of the principals cooperated, and the show was based on the book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer (1984) by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine. It was set beginning during the early 1970’s and concluded with a birthday party for Jobs in 1985, just before he lost control of Apple for several years.

Shows that realistically and fairly treat businesspeople have been few and far between, in part because a well-run business is probably not interesting enough to make good series television. Unlike a police station or hospital, mundane businesses rarely deal in life-and-death situations. Television writers spice up the story lines by inserting conflicts that rarely happen in a normal business.

Further Reading
  • Bauer, Douglas, ed. Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows. New York: Crown, 2004. This collection includes essays on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
  • Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Critical defense of television with comments on several shows portraying business themes.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. Discusses the treatment of businesspeople in the chapter “The Temple Stands.”
  • Medved, Michael. Hollywood vs. America. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. The subchapter “Evil Industrialists” argues that a disproportionate number of the villains on television are businesspeople.
  • Siegel, Lee. Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television. Philadelphia: Perseus Books Group, 2007. This collection of essays includes a review of The Apprentice.
  • Thompson, Robert L. Television’s Second Golden Age: From “Hill Street Blues” to “ER.” New York: Continuum, 1996. Discusses many of the major shows of the 1980’s and 1990’s that portray workplaces and business themes.

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