February 15, 2009

Ante-"Law & Order"

Another bit from the late Daniel Seligman's Keeping Up column in Fortune:

April 13, 1987
Sell or Die

An unusually compelling statistic suddenly leaped out of the TV set the other night, lodged in the present writer's cortex, and insistently demanded to be memorialized in Keeping Up. "By the age of 18," the man on the tube was saying, "the average kid has seen businessmen on television attempt over 10,000 murders."

The man was actor Eli Wallach, and his memorable line had been supplied by Manifold Productions, creators of Hollywood's Favorite Heavy: Businessmen on Prime Time TV , a documentary that was underwritten by Mobil and other anti-anti-business institutions and is now being aired on public television. The program includes quite a few film clips from prime-time drama, so you get to see lots of managers and entrepreneurs tossing off lines like "Make him disappear," "I want this guy to have an accident," and "I'm making a final offer: Sell or die," all of which seem reasonably representative of the badinage a fellow keeps coming across while flipping over to the baseball game. Still, 10,000 attempted murders is a lot of attempted murders, even for your average highly motivated profit maximizer. Could that number possibly stand up?

Having now looked at some of Manifold's sources, we rate it unproved and yet awesomely plausible and maybe even conservative. One source was a study called Prime Time Crime, published by the Media Institute in 1983. It was prepared by Linda and S. Robert Lichter -- both are scholars at George Washington University -- and based on a sizable sample of television dramas. The study persuasively develops the following propositions:

First, crime is a far greater theme on TV than in the real world: The 263 programs reviewed by the Lichters showed 250 criminals committing 417 crimes. Second, murder is heavily overrepresented in TV crime: Homicides accounted for almost 25% of the crimes in the Lichters' sample (vs. less than 1% in FBI crime reports). Third, business is wildly overrepresented among TV criminals: It was responsible for 26% of all the murders, for example. Also upping the unreality quotient was another finding of the study: that characters who are young, poor, unemployed, or nonwhite hardly ever commit violent crimes on the tube. For those seeking reality in prime time, we continue to recommend the ball game.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sure, it's an old standby: killer businessmen (although Michael Clayton introduced the novel twist of the killer businesswoman). You've also got your effete Brits and classical music listeners (esp. opera buffs). Worst of all is the effete British opera buff: he's EVIL!

Anonymous said...

The businessmen demonized on TV and in the movies tend to be captains of industry and oilmen, not bankers or media moguls. I wonder why ;-)

Anonymous said...

There was the chief baddie in Tomorrow Never Dies, he was a media mogul. Highly representitive of media moguls - he did seem to be a white, British gentile so therefore a prime suspect all round.

Perhaps one of those WASPy elites who have been cornering the media sector recently?

RKU said...

That's totally ridiculous!

WASPs, especially those with British or Southern accents, aren't the *only* villains in American TV and movies. You're seeing bias where none exists.

Everyone knows that Nazis and Arabs constitute an even larger fraction of the villains...

Anonymous said...

The Ultimate Villain: a Nazi-Arab businessman (with a "toff" accent) who listens to opera. He should be languidly stroking a white Persian cat on his lap, too.

Black Sea said...

I don't doubt that PC and and various other biases are represented in all of this, but there is another factor to consider. For a crime drama to be interesting, the criminal must be interesting, which means he must capable of scheming and hatching a complex plot, devious enough to conceal his deed; in short, a worthy antagonist to a master detective.

Real life murderers rarely fit the above criteria. So far as I can tell from watching reality shows such as "The First 48 Hours" (quite good, by the way) most murderers don't really "hatch a scheme," they just go shoot the motherf#cker they have a beef with, and hope that the cops don't notice.

If they confess, it's not to unburden their guilty souls, but to place the blame for pulling the trigger on one of their accomplices. I have seen people on the show mentioned above confess as a means of trying to get out of it (i.e a guy who participated in beating and kicking a man to death, and then maintained that he'd only kicked the victim a couple of times, apparently not realizing that he'd just confessed).

Watching this unfold on a reality show is pretty interesting, because it's real, but it wouldn't make much of a case for Detective Columbo.

Anonymous said...

An 18-year-old has lived 6,574 days. So he'd have to see 1 or 2 such murders (or attempts) a day to make that figure work. And this doesn't account for summer camp, tonsilectomies, etc.

Actually, a group's percentage of crimes on TV per se is not an important question; it's the ratio of that percentage to its counterpart in real life that counts.

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt that PC and various other biases are represented in all of this, but there is another factor to consider. For a crime drama to be interesting, the criminal must be interesting

Wouldn't it be interesting if the murderer was a brilliant movie producer named Irving Feigenbaum, or a Latina human rights lawyer who's an ardent fan of hip hop and a connoisseur Native American art?

rob said...

I think Black Sea is right. Real to life murders are mostly failures as drama. For a while there was a L&O spinoff with real murder trials. Horribly depressing.

Characters one can relate to are more interesting. Agatha Christie was all about nice people killing one another. She was pre-PC. I'd be willinng to bet that shows for black people and shows blacks watch have more black killers. The Wire comes to mind.

KingM said...

As a writer, my killers are never poor, unemployed youth either. That's just boring.

And that's about 90% of the reason right there. It doesn't match reality, but nobody expects it to.

Svigor said...

Funniest comments thread evar! The anonymous right after RKU gets my vote for the standout in a thread full of funnies.

:)

Svigor said...

There should be a movie to take the pantheon described in this thread into account. Then Hollywood can give America what she really wants. Like, say, a villainous coalition of hillbillies, white domestic terrorists, Muslims*, Euro-terrorists, cultured Englishmen, nationalist Russians, and WASP businessmen. Mel Gibson could play their fuhrer.

Why do things piecemeal when you can roll all the good stuff into one movie?

*(kinda falling out of favor now that we're pretty much at war with 'em, but still...)

Svigor said...

I don't doubt that PC and and various other biases are represented in all of this, but there is another factor to consider. For a crime drama to be interesting, the criminal must be interesting, which means he must capable of scheming and hatching a complex plot, devious enough to conceal his deed; in short, a worthy antagonist to a master detective.

So, blacks can play philosophers, super-scientists, larger-than-life statesmen, etc., but Hollywood is tacitly saying they can't play criminal masterminds?

How odd. Who woulda thunk the couch-riding American viewers would "buy" a black super-scientist savior of mankind, but fail to suspend disbelief at a scheming black murderer! Joe sixpack sure is particular...

But then, we have that whole body of work to prove that Hollywood tried this, and it didn't fly so your logic is inescapable...

albertosaurus said...

It's just a formula and shouldn't be taken seriously. The really strong formulas in movies and TV are amnesia, professional assassins, and vampires.

There have been dozens of films based on one kind of amnesia or another. Yet almost no one knows anyone who has had amnesia. Alcoholism is actually common. Everyone has a friend or an uncle who has had problems with alcohol. Alcohol is reality. But movies about alcohol hardly exist. Amnesia is not reality yet it continues as a popular plot device.

Similarly the movies would have you believe that there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of hit-men out there. Most movie hit-men don't bother to clean up the bodies. Yet today I read the paper and found no stories about bodies found with two shots to the head from close range (double tap) or stories of important men being shot by a sniper as they got out of their limosine.

These assassin victim bodies are as scarce as the exsanguinated bodies left by the vampires.

Note the sucess of the Bourne triolgy - an amnesiac assassin. Or the Blade trilogy - a vampire assassin.

I suspect that the public regards the evil white businessman in much the way that they regard amnesia, assassins and vampires - something you only really encounter in film.

Mark said...

What did Chris Rock say about black murderers versus white murderers?

Working from very vague memory here: 'Black crime is dumb crime. If I read about some guy knocking off some old lady for $50, I know it was a brutha. If I hear about some guy who kills 10 people then cooks their heads for dinner, I know it was whitey.'

Which makes for the more interesting movie/TV drama?

Mr. Anon said...

Why, without true-to-life crime dramas such as "Law and Order", I would never be aware of the fact that most murders in Manhattan are committed by middle-class white guys. Nor would I know that New York City is a hot-bed of neo-nazis, klansmen, and evangelical christian anti-abortion fanatics.

To say nothing of the shameful doings of all those white, blond crack-whores!

James Kabala said...

Black Sea's point is a valid one. The great British detective writers of the later 19th and early 20th centuries (Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, Sayers, etc.) were usually quite conservative and rarely PC, but intelligent, well-bred people - and usually rural rather than urban residents - were the bulk of their murderers. The American private eye writers (like Marlowe and Hammett), who were less conservative (and in Hammett's case, actually a communist) but still not PC in the modern sense, also focused on the skullduggery of the rich and well-connected. This is not a modern phenomenon.

I also agree with anonymous that the precise statistic seems dubious, although maybe people watched more cop shows in the pre-reality-TV days (and the now-defunct TV movie also usually featured an upper- or middle-class villain).

testing99 said...

Good dramas often key into the hunt for the killer, as opposed to politically correct preaching.

This is why Law and Order is bad Drama, and much of TV/Movies besides. You can look at the casting and know the main villain.

The Wire was good drama because often, like early Homicide Life on the Street, you had overwhelmed Homicide detectives looking for non-Mastermind but largely anonymous killers, protected by an anti-Police and anti-White/Mainstream code of silence in the Black community. A source of frustration to the Black detectives especially. Andre Braugher's Black Catholic disgust/anger in Homicide was a great dramatic touch, hardly ever seen since. Angry and judgmental, completely, at people who failed to make even elemental moral judgments as his character did. "Crime makes you stupid."

A few writers (Rob Thomas, creator of "Cupid" on the last season of Veronica Mars) have played with audience expectations. Showing an uber-PC, self righteous character, and an "evil" character such as a Televangelist. With the reveal being that the Televangelist is a loving, non-condemnatory father, and the uber-PC feminist a murderer. I was blown away by that, the most un-PC show on TV (and aimed at a teen girl audience mostly).

Of course, since women are ground zero for PC, it was cancelled soon.

However, there is ample ground to play on either the Homicide dramatic territory (socially conservative Black detectives critical of the poor Black community), the hunt for a stupid but anonymous killer in the urban mass, or the playing of expectations.

As success is harder and harder in a recession, I expect a few writers to find a combination of those elements and produce some fairly successful TV or movies.

We've had PC cliches for nearly forty years, it's old, boring, and tiresome.

Anonymous said...

Sure, we want diabolically clever killers in our thrillers, but as one of the anons above asked, why not make the diabolically clever killer a brilliant Latina human-rights lawyer and hip-hop afficionado or a silver-tongued Jewish producer? Why such a narrow (and suspiciously specific) range of baddies?

And I can't believe I'm saying this, but...for once I agree with T99. The Wire is the best police procedural ever made, partly because it's so much more than that. It's also refreshingly unafraid of using un-PC but true-to-life stereotypes like alcoholic Irish cops, sleazy Jewish defense lawyers, and moronic black thugs. Too bad it crapped the bed in season five, though.

Svigor said...

Too bad it crapped the bed in season five, though.

Five seasons is a really, really long time for any show, much less a crime drama, to go before crapping the bed.

Svigor said...

It's just a formula and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Yes we know, the media has no power to shape minds or cultures. That's why it's a veritable ethnic monopoly. Cornering the market on surfboards would've meant equal power of persuasion, just not as much fun.

Svigor said...

And yes, we all know that Hollywood would never bow to minority pressure groups, so that can't have anything to do with it. And this has no chance of being a briar patch situation for Hollywood, either.

Everybody's a babe in the woods.

Charlotte said...

"Of course, since women are ground zero for PC, it was cancelled soon."

Tunnel vision you have. Like many here. We all do when we are not able or willing to take in the larger perspective. There have been countless movies, tv shows, commercials even, with female villains. "Feminist" readings of movies did not come out of a political movement. They came out of ordinary girls & women looking askance at a lot of what was on screen. Just as men are offended by a lot of TV. I don't blame them--the Viacom commerical comes to mind.
Anyway, think "One flew over the cookoo's nest"--evil Nurse Ratchet. She was not a rare sort of character. There have been plenty of similar types on various dramas, especially from the BBC. The Brits do evil female characters particularly well. An evil woman who plays with innocent, obliging men is a stock character, fcol. She's still around. Has been since they wrote Adam & Eve. No persistent and wide spread movement comes for no reason. Blacks are absurdly "affirmed" nowadays, but I have to admit that is partially because of their status a few generations back. You just have to stop somewhere, say, no more. Because habit sets in and an equally unjust paradigm becomes the rule.

David said...

Anon said

The Ultimate Villain: a Nazi-Arab businessman (with a "toff" accent) who listens to opera. He should be languidly stroking a white Persian cat on his lap, too.

You left out that he should have blond hair and blue eyes, too. (Peter Brimelow has the looks of the ultimate TV villain, doesn't he?)

svigor said

So, blacks can play philosophers, super-scientists, larger-than-life statesmen, etc., but Hollywood is tacitly saying they can't play criminal masterminds?

Sometimes Svigor hits one out of the ballpark. This is one of those times.

kingm said

As a writer, my killers are never poor, unemployed youth either. That's just boring.

No guy, it's "just boring" to rehash the same stereotypes over and over and over and over. Why can't the black man be the killer - y'know, just for a refreshing "edgy" change? Or as others have suggested, why not have the villainess be the Latina community organizer with her hand on the throat of a local business?

Why can't a homosexual activist be the pedophile predator, rather than (yawn) a Catholic priest? White Catholic priest, of course.

Zzzzzz.

You fellas love to gas about "originality" but hardly ever have the guts to have any. I suppose twist endings - genuine ones - are beyond the capabilities or ambitions of today's paid-up members of the fourth estate.

I got a great idea for a story: smart evil white guy (former Enron manager) pollutes an African-America area with toxic waste in order to make big profits! Morgan Freeman could play the hero! Sounds sexy, doesn't it?

Zzzzzz.

Anonymous said...

I used to watch Homicide Life on the Street when it was first on TV back in the 90's. I started watching The First 48 a about 4 years ago shorty after it started airing. The former certainly did an accurate job of portraying real life. I loathe Law and Order and always denounce it when woman tell me it's their favorite show.

I saw an interview with the producers of Cops where they admitted if they film 50 arrests for an episode, and 2 of the suspects are white, they will use those two segments, plus one with a black suspect. They said this in response to the interviewer's suggestion that they were racist for showing black criminals.

When Cops first went on TV, they featured a lot of serious crime and black suspects. Then they started filming mostly in smaller western cities like Fresno and Spokane and showing mostly white and Latino suspects involved in minor things like domestic disputes and loitering.