NEW YORK — A new public television documentary takes the three major networks to task for their prime-time portrayals of American businessmen and women as "heavies" who behave "amorally" and who, the report contends, are beginning to serve as role models for young television viewers.
Throughout the upcoming one-hour program, titled "Hollywood's Favorite Heavy," television critics, academics and the documentary's host/narrator, actor Eli Wallach, maintain that prime time's most popular moguls "lie, cheat, steal, blackmail and even murder" in order to succeed in business.
But the most startling comments in the documentary come from the creators of some of TV's current prime-time series, who acknowledge that the business community makes "an easy mark" for villainy and for what some term "evil design."
The recently completed documentary is due to air on public television stations early next year. The exact date has not been set yet.
"This is not intended as a defense of business, but as an examination of television and how it communicates values," said Michael Pack, one of two New York-based producers of "Hollywood's Favorite Heavy."
"It's not just that businessmen are portrayed as heavies, it is how they are heavy . . . what they do," added Daniel B. Polin, the documentary's other producer.
The documentary concludes that the fictional businessmen and women and what they do on such prime-time soaps as "Dynasty," "Dallas," "Falcon Crest" and "The Colbys" have a real influence on viewers.
Interviewed on camera are middle-class women in a beauty parlor and lower/middle-income teenagers in a Brooklyn high school. Most express an admiration for the more villainous characters on prime time.
The producers said the idea for the documentary was sparked in 1981, with the release of a statistical study by the Media Institute, a Washington-based research organization, that showed that the business community "very often" was portrayed on prime time in a negative light.
"The conclusions (of the 1981 study) seemed to us excessive at the time," Pack recalled, "but we were wanting to make a documentary about how producers and the Hollywood creative community work, and we thought an examination along these lines would be interesting. After all, businessmen are central to American life and have more influence on the public than, say, insurance men. Also, they are not exactly an oppressed minority, and we thought focusing on them would make more sense than focusing on a minority group with grievances that would need to be addressed."
The $375,000-documentary was funded largely by Mobil Oil, a frequent critic of the media. Pack said the corporation was "one of the first" approached for funding, "because of its interest in the media," and also because of Mobil's history of underwriting public-television programs.
Pack said that he and Polin also relied on a seven-member board of advisers consisting of TV critics, academics and one network executive, "to make sure the documentary was not distorted or biased."
He said other academic studies of "occupational portrayals" on TV also were utilized. But he stressed that most of the documentary's conclusions were based on interviews within the Hollywood television industry.
"We thought we would find an anti-business bias (among the creators of the shows) but we did not," Polin said. "It's just that we didn't find much ideological commitment in Hollywood either."
Charlton Heston, who plays the ruthless Jason Colby on ABC's "The Colbys," says in an on-camera interview for the documentary, "In a society such as ours, that has overwhelmingly demonstrated the success of capitalism, to have the prime moving force of that system (the businessman) labeled a bad guy seems to me perverse. But that's where we are."
Similar sentiments are expressed in the documentary by the creators, producers and writers of current network shows.