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Television Survey

Television may be big business, but it does a poor job representing how business really works, according to a survey of MIT Sloan School of Management alumni.

While most of the respondents to the survey said they don’t watch much TV, those who do were hard pressed to name any single show that best represents business. Pickings were a bit better when it came to naming shows that poorly portray business, however, with the just-canceled Ally McBeal topping the thumbs-down list.

The survey, which was conducted in fall 2002 in connection with MIT Sloan’s 50th anniversary, drew more than 600 e-mail responses from across the world and from alumni in a wide range of business sectors. About half the respondents graduated between 1950 and 1990, while half left Sloan since 1991. About 20 percent were women.

About half of those answering the survey said they either don’t watch television or could think of no show that truly depicts business.

“The now defunct Wall Street Week was the best, since it brought the value of capital markets to a broader audience,” said Bill Springer, who graduated Sloan in 1980. “There are a number of worthy nominees for the worst, as business is commonly stereotyped inaccurately by TV shows.”

The survey winner for best representation was West Wing, though it only got seven votes. It also received one vote for worst portrayal. ER, Wall Street Week, and The Simpsons each received six MIT Sloan alumni thumbs-up.

The best representation of business on TV is Montgomery Burns’ power plant on The Simpsons,” responded Jack Langworthy (Sloan, 1991).

Ally McBeal was the clear winner in worst representation of business, with 20 respondents naming the Boston-based lawyer show. “Does anybody do work at that firm?” wrote Lauren Wu (MIT Sloan, 1999). Next on the worst representation list was CNN (11), CNBC (7) and The Sopranos (6), followed by a plethora of shows — from X-Files and 60 Minutes to Survivor and Dateline — that each picked up one or more negative nods.

But Dean Harper (MIT Sloan, 1998) rated The Sopranos as the best representation of business. “It’s still all about who you know,” Harper explained.

Other shows and comments include:

  • Best representation is Cheers, which “shows the importance of customer retention,” said Stephen Leichtman (MIT Sloan, 1986). The worst is Seinfeld, “which makes all management look like idiots.”

  • Worst: Sex in the City. “Strange choice, but the characters all supposedly have excellent jobs given their hedonistic Manhattan lifestyles, yet their priorities are shallow and focused in the wrong directions,” said Larry Judelson, (MIT Sloan, 1975).

  • Best: Various Star Trek series, where “the captain and staff frame problems and decide solution actions in a two-minute time frame,” said John Byrnes (MIT Sloan, 1990).

But the greatest consensus view was offered by Fred Broussard (MIT Sloan, 1997), who answered the survey question with one of his own: “There are TV shows with a business focus?” he asked.


TV Survey