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Television To Blame For Dislike of Public Servants

Elected officials and public servants rather than businessmen are still seen as the "least likeable" occupational group in US prime time entertainment programming. And guess what - it's TV's fault. John Howard reports.

Nothing much has changed in almost six months according to the authors of a May 1999 survey into television entertainment programming.

The May study revealed corruption, buffoonery, ineptitude and red tape are the hallmarks of government on primetime entertainment television in the late 1990's. The May study was conducted for the Partnership for Trust in Government, an organisation designed to help people recognise government's role in their lives. It is partly funded by the Ford Foundation.

At that time, Robert Lichter of the Centre for Media and Public Affairs and his team looked at more than 1,000 episodes of shows that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox from 1995 to 1999; they scrutinised 9,588 characters of whom 2,664 (28 per cent) were public-sector employees.

They found television "takes public officials and turns them into politicians and bureaucrats who serve their own interests or special interests rather than the public interest."

The study authors showed a clip from the Sienfeld episode in which inept mailman Newman, angry that he didn't get a transfer to Hawaii, begins to stockpile the mail rather than delivering it. There was also the episode of The Simpsons where Marge's sister Selma, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee, gives an actor a pass on his driver's license eye exam even though he's as blind as a bat - because he doesn't want to be seen publicly wearing glasses and he asked her out on a date.

There was a clip from another animated sitcom, King of the Hill, in which Hank Hill discovers the government won't let him sack a drugged-out employee at his propane store because of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lichter wondered why the cartoon show had never done an episode about the government forcing Hank to make the store wheel-chair-accessible. "This is easier to make fun of," he said.

Reaction to the study in Hollywood was muted, as television producers and executives have been lying low after claims that television programming is responsible for much of school and society violence.

Cases are now coming before the courts where the entertainment industry is citing "media freedoms" while lawyers are citing "product liability."

But what of the many broadcast TV heroes who are cops and police detectives - all government workers - on such prime-time shows as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Life on the Street, and The X-Files. Yes, the study authors say, they are portrayed positively on TV and so are teachers, but they are rarely portrayed as government representatives.


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