III. Criminals In TV Entertainment

Television's portrayal of criminals also diverges markedly from real life. According to the latest FBI arrest reports, crimes are disproportionately committed by males, young people, nonwhites, the poor and the unemployed. They act out of a wide variety of motives, and more often than not their crimes go unpunished.

In the fantasy world of prime-time television most of these relationships are reversed. The bulk of prime-time criminals are male but they also tend to be white middle- or upper-class adults. Their transgressions usually stem directly from simple greed and they are usually thwarted before the closing credits. We shall consider each of these characteristics of TV criminals in turn.


Most crimes in America are committed by males, and television accurately reflects the disproportionate tendency of men to commit illegal acts. As Table 4 shows, males accounted for 84 percent of all arrests in 1980, including 90 percent of arrests for violent crimes. The proportions on television are about the same. About nine of ten criminals were males regardless of the severity of the offense. Male criminals ranged from a purse snatcher on Hill Street Blues (4/21) to a male involved in a drug-related murder on Hart to Hart (313).


Youthful offenders have been much in the news of late. Especially disturbing is the rise in serious and violent crimes among teenagers. In 1980, young people not yet 18 years old accounted for over one arrest in five across the country. Even more ominous, these teenagers and subteens made up 36 percent of those arrested for FBI Index crimes serious offenses ranging from robbery and larceny to rape and murders. More broadly, young people (mostly young males) are implicated in the vast majority of crimes in the United States. The 18 to 29 year-old age group alone accounted for virtually half of all arrests in 1980. Overall, people not yet 30 years old totalled 70 percent of all recorded arrests for that year.

Arrest records for serious crimes are skewed even more heavily toward young offenders. The under-30s group made up 82 percent of those arrested for offenses that comprise the FBI Crime Index.

Finally, individuals still in their teens or 20s made up nearly three out of four arrests for crimes of violence.

On television, as Table 5 shows, the relationship between youth and criminality was reversed. The vast majority of criminals were mature adults over age 30. This held true for both violent and non-violent crimes, as well as for both serious and minor offenses. A majority of criminals was found in the 30 to 50 age group, including 59 percent of those responsible for both serious and violent crime. Another one in five criminals was over age 50, as was one in six violent criminals. By contrast, only about one criminal in four was under 30, regardless of the seriousness of the offense.

In real life a majority of those arrested for violent crimes is between the ages of 18 and 30. In the shows we viewed only 18 percent of the criminal characters came from this age group. Equally striking is the near absence of youth crime on television. Characters not yet 18 years old accounted for only 6 percent of all criminals, 7 percent of those who commit serious crimes and 8 percent of those guilty of illegal acts of violence.

Not a single teenager under 18 committed a murder on the 263 shows we watched although this age group accounted for 1,742 murder arrests in 1980 or almost one homicide arrest in ten nationwide. Rather, the norm on television was represented by a middle-aged real estate manager involved in land swindles (BJ and the Bear 3/10), and a drug dealer of similar age who finds murder necessary to keep his business going (Hart to Hart 3/3).

There are few crimes by television teens such as the involvement of three teenagers in a car theft ring on CHiPs (9/13). More common are crimes by those over 50 such as an aging police sergeant on Enos (4/15) who pushes heroin on the side, and an ambitious politician on The Greatest American Hero who is involved in both murder and an attempted assassination of the President (3/18).

In sum, youth crime is a major concern for both law enforcers and the general public. In the fantasy world of television, however, it is hardly ever a problem. Instead crime is largely the province of mature adults.


In 1980, 25 percent of those arrested in America for crimes were black, another 2 percent were Asian or American Indian and the remaining 74 percent were white. Blacks accounted for 33 percent of those arrested for serious crimes, other nonwhites 2 percent and whites 65 percent. Arrestees for violent crimes were 44 percent black, 1 percent other nonwhite and 54 percent white.

So blacks are arrested about twice as often as one would expect on the basis of their distribution in the population. For serious crimes this factor rises to nearly three to one, and for crimes of violence almost four to one. Similar results can be obtained from FBI victimization statistics (victims' reports of suspects' characteristies),5 making it unlikely that these arrest totals are greatly inflated by racism on the part of the arresting officers.

It should be noted, of course, that blacks are disproportionately represented among the victims as well as the perpetrators of crimes. As Lee Daniels recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "because the poor are more victimized by crime than others, blacks, who represent a disproportionate percentage of the poor, are more likely than whites to be the victims of violent crimes." Daniels also points out that blacks are particularly vulnerable to street crime, and "the primary reason for most 'black on black' crime ... is that most street crimes are committed by poor people out of desperation, impulse and opportunity."6 Beyond this we lack the competence to enter the debate over the societal causes for this differential crime rate. Our far more limited purpose is to compare these figures with comparable data from prime-time television.

Studies have shown that by the late 1 960s black characters were written into television programs roughly in proportion to their distribution in the actual population, i.e., 10 to 12 percent of all characters. We found that they make up about the same proportion of criminals on prime-time shows. As Table 6 indicates, nonwhite characters, almost all of them black, accounted for 12 percent of all criminals on the shows we viewed. The proportion dropped to 10 percent of perpetrators of violent crime and only 3 percent of the murderers. Illustrative of the relatively few black criminals is a drug dealer on Barney Miller (4/16) and a hotel maid who stole the tips of other maids on The Jeffersons (3/19).

What are we to make of this disparity? We would hardly recommend that television scriptwriters assign more murders to black characters for the dubious purpose of bringing television closer to "reality". But the very absurdity of such a suggestion raises an important point about the social content of television entertainment. It is very difficult to interpret the relative paucity of televised crime (especially violent crime) among blacks as simply a reflection of reality. Instead these figures may reflect concerns of television writers, producers and network executives to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes and producing negative role models. Whether such concerns are conscious or unconscious, individual or institutional, they illustrate the point that television entertainment does convey social values.

Nor is there necessarily anything invidious about this fact. It was partly criticism from the black community, after all, that led to the disappearance of "Stepin Fetchit" characters

Whether or not the relatively low violent crime rate among black characters reflects conscious concerns of this sort, it suggests that the creators of TV entertainment cannot ignore their role in communicating images laden with social values.


Most criminals in television belong to relatively few occupational groups. Of those whose occupation was identified, over three out of four criminals fit into one of four categories: professional criminals, businessmen, police and flunkies who do the dirty work for someone else.

Table 7 presents the occupational profile of prime-time criminals. First and foremost were people whose only profession is crime itself. This group included members of organized crime as well as independent gangs of thieves. Twenty-eight percent of all prime-time criminals were people whose entire income derived from the proceeds of their evildoing. The addition of their flunkies raises this group's total to 36 percent or more than one prime-time criminal in three. So TV pictures a world inhabited by legions of fulltime criminals who earn their livelihoods at the expense of law-abiding citizens.

These groups of "professional" deviants are illustrated by a drug smuggler on BJ and the Bear (3/24) and a gang leader on CHiPs who reaps the profits from a widespread car theft ring (9/13). Typical of the flunkies or underlings of professional crime is a thug hired by Dynasty's Blake Carrington to beat up his daughter's suitor (3/9).

Yet by no means is most TV crime the product of social deviants or criminal subcultures. Instead it can be traced to established figures in the social order such as well-off professionals, policemen and, above all, businessmen. About one criminal in eight was identified as a businessman. As we found with professional criminals, however, this group became considerably larger when their flunkies were taken into account. Businessmen and their flunkies together accounted for 24 percent of all criminals with identifiable occupations, far exceeding any other legitimate occupational group.

For example, the owner of a computer firm and his flunky are involved in shipping illegal explosives for profit (BJ and the Bear 4/14). Similarly, a theater owner on Lobo (313) and his ruthless underling not only embezzle company funds but commit a murder to cover up the theft (3/3). We have already noted the business executive who tries to sell "classified" equipment to an enemy country (The Greatest American Hero 4/15) and how Dynasty executive Blake Carrington has his adversaries beaten up by hired thugs (3/9). Other examples include a stockbroker who murders his call girls (Vegas 4/1); a casino owner who skims the profits (Vegas 4/15); the owner of a chemical company who falsifies records and attempts murder to cover up his illegal dumping of toxic substances (Walking Tall 3/24); the head of a world-wide conglomerate who kills a competitor (Nero Wolfe 3/27); a bank manager who arranges to have his own bank robbed (Lobo 4/7); the owner of a record company who steals recordings from other companies (Lobo~121); a theater owner who embezzles company funds (Lo1'o 3/3); the owner of a dating service who blackmails employees (BJ and the Bear 4/7); and the head of a real estate company who organizes land swindles (BJ and the Bear 3/10).

Crooks, Conmen and Clowns, a Media Institute study of businessmen in TV entertainment, found that a high proportion of business characters are portrayed as criminals.' We now find that the converse is true as well; a substantial segment of TV's criminal population is drawn from the world of business.

Police officers came next in the line-up of offenders. On television the upholders of law and order made up 13 percent of those who broke the law, about one criminal in eight. Included here were a police officer on Magnum, P.I. who accepts a bribe to look the other way during a traffic violation (4/23) and a police lieutenant on The Greatest American Hero (9/3) who attempts to steal some "hot" diamonds from the original thieves.

They were followed by professional people such as doctors, lawyers and architects who together accounted for 8 percent of all criminals. Typical of them was a doctor on Hart to Hart who runs a counterfeiting ring (4/14) and a lawyer on Vegas who draws his profits from pornography (3/25).

The occupational group least likely to contain lawbreakers consisted of blue collar workers, who comprised only 5 percent of all criminals whose occupations were known. Among the few blue collar criminals was a gardener on Magnum, P.I. who pilfers already stolen money from a gang of criminals (4/16).

The remainder was scattered among such characters as a model who murders her husband to collect money he had already stolen (Hart to Hart 3/10) and a carnival announcer who runs fixed gambling games (BJ and the Bear 1/7).

In sum, of criminals with known occupations, over one-third were professional criminals or their flunkies, another one-fourth were businessmen and their underlings, one in eight were policemen, one in 12 came from the educated professions and only one in 20 held blue collar jobs. So television focuses far more on criminals near the top of the social hierarchy than on those whose activities stem from a culture of poverty. The Hollywood gangster of 1930s films, who turned to a life of crime to escape the hopelessness of Hell's Kitchen, has no equivalent on television today. Even the professional criminals are usually members of lucrative organizations, and most other lawbreakers are either pillars of the community or those sworn to protect it.

Economic Status

The image of evil-doing in high places is reinforced by the economic status accorded characters who commit crimes. To be sure, the status of most characters could not be clearly identified. Only one in four could be reliably coded as either rich, middle class or poor. However, that left 58 criminals with a clear place in the economic hierarchy. And this group was strongly weighted toward the top as Table 8 demonstrates. Sixteen percent of all criminals were clearly wealthy, compared to only 4 percent who were middle class and 3 percent who were poor or working class. Thus, a viewer was about five times more likely to see a wealthy criminal than a poor one. Moreover, the number of wealthy criminals was more than double that of middle- and lower-class criminals combined.

Typical of wealthy criminals is the notorious Boss Hogg of The Dukes of Hazzard who uses blackmail to obtain a piece of valuable art (3/13). The even richer and equally notorious Blake Carrington of Dynasty, who inhabits a luxurious mansion, knowingly allows company funds to be used illegally (3/9). Among the middle-class offenders is a medical examiner on Quincy who is an accessory in covering up a murder (4/8). Among the few poor characters is a ghetto youth on Hill Street Blues who tries to hold up a grocery store (4/21).

The data for homicides are even more striking. Eighty percent of the murders were committed by characters with no clear economic status, 20 percent by wealthy characters and none by either middle-class or poor characters. So among those characters whose economic status was known, murder was the exclusive province of the rich. In real life, of course, crime is associated with low social and economic status. According to Department of Justice Statistics, onethird of the inmates in state prisons were unemployed in the month prior to their arrest. Among those who had income from any source, the average income was almost 50 percent lower than that of comparable groups in the general population.

How much crime is directly and indirectly caused by poverty is a matter of interpretation. But no one would dispute that crime is associated with poverty and unemployment. Yet the TV watcher rarely sees this kind of crime. Instead the viewer is primarily exposed to stories about well-to-do criminals or those without a clearly defined economic status.


In addition to establishing a demographic profile of prime-time criminals, we were interested in determining the number of recidivists, or repeat offenders. Television portrays two types of lawbreakers the first offender and the habitual criminal. There seems to be no middle ground; a character either commits a crime for the very first time or he is committed to a life of crime. As might be expected from the high proportion of professional criminals, most fell into the latter category.

As Table 9 shows, habitual criminals outnumbered first offenders by more than a four-to-one margin. In 44 percent of the cases the plot didn't make clear whether the bad guy was a first timer or a repeater. Another 46 percent, almost half of all criminals, were clearly identified as recidivists. Only 10 percent were shown committing their first illegal act. For example, Fantasy Island featured a young woman whose crime debut involves aiding her boyfriend in an extortion scheme against her own father (4/18). Many more, however, were repeat offenders such as a mobster on Magnum, P.I. who, upon his release from prison, engages in robbery and murder to obtain already stolen money (4/233. Another recent parolee on Hart to Hart kidnaps the show's heroine for a fat ransom from her wealthy husband (4/21).

The high proportion of recidivists relative to first offenders suggests that prime-time criminals are rarely portrayed as the victims of ill luck or transient emotion. More often they habitually violate the law, often in pursuit of a criminal lifestyle.

Many of the crimes in real life are committed by repeat offenders. An FBI study found that, of over 250,000 people arrested for serious crimes during the period 1970-1975, 64 percent had been arrested at least once before.9 These repeat offenders had been arrested an average of four times each over a period of five years. But even if we were to consider all repeat offenders as career criminals, which is clearly not the case, their incidence would not equal the picture presented on television. Among the prime-time characters who were specifically identified as either first offenders or habitual criminals, 82 percent fell into the latter group.


So far we have concentrated on who commits crimes in television entertainment. We turn now to the question of why crimes are carried out. In real life motives for crimes are often murky, mysterious or multiple. Often the perpetrator himself can't sort out the tangled strands of motivation that lead him to break the law.

On television entertainment, however, one motive stands head and shoulders above all others in accounting for crimes of almost every sort. That motive is greed. On television, as Table l0 indicates, greed alone was the motivation of three out of four criminals or 74 percent overall including1arge majorities of every crime category except rape. Every single embezzler and drug dealer was motivated by greed, along with at least four out of five gamblers, blackmailers, extortionists, bribers, robbers and thieves. This greed was often calculated and cruel, as with a young man who robs a bank on Lobo and takes some of its customers hostage (417), and a dogbreeder on Nero Wolfe who feigns concern for his cousin then carefully plots her murder to inherit her money (3/6).

Other motives occasionally surfaced, although no additional category explained the behavior of more than a small proportion of the 250 criminal characters. Fifteen criminals were carrying on personal vendettas, such as a gangster on Hill Street Blues who assaults an opposing gang member specifically to stir up trouble for series hero Captain Frank Furillo (4/4).

Another 14 acted out of some sexual motivation including all seven rapists. Each of these categories accounted for only about 6 percent of all criminals. Another 4 percent had sympathetic motives such as a computer operator who, on pain of losing his job (and with a pregnant wife to support), reluctantly falsifies a report to the EPA hiding the fact that his boss is illegally disposing toxic wastes (Walking Tall 3/24).

Only 3 percent were insane or mentally imbalanced such as a disturbed Vietnam veteran on CHiPs who vandalizes small farm pesticide sprayers because he had been a pilot releasing defoliation chemicals in Vietnam. He is turned over to a veterans hospital for treatment (4/5).

One percent, or three characters, broke the law by accident. The motives of the remaining 4 percent were not made clear by the plot. All these categories were obviously dwarfed by the 184 criminals who acted on the basis of avarice. Precise comparisons with the motivations of actual criminals are mostly unavailable. However, the FBI does publish statistics on the motives and circumstances surrounding homicides. Although their categories differ from ours, they provide some indication of the different motivations of murderers in real life and in TV entertainment.

On television the motives of murderers were not very different from those of other criminals. An overwhelming majority, 75 percent, killed because of greed. Nine percent dispatched their victims as the denouement of a personal vendetta. Six percent of the killers had some sexual motive. The motives of 4 percent were never explained. That left ohly 6 percent who killed for any other reason.

This breakdown can be compared to the FBI's 1980 statistics summarized in Table 11. They show that by far the largest number of murders almost half were committed in the course of arguments (the so-called "crimes of passion" rather than crimes of greed). Another one in four were proven or suspected to result from some other felonious activity such as robbery, rape, etc. Fifteen percent of homicides were of unknown motivation and a slightly larger proportion were brought together under the catch-all category of "other motives."

From this entire list only about one in seven murders could be taken at face value as the product of greed. That represents the combination of 11 percent of murders attributable to robberies and a scant 3 percent that resulted from arguments over property or money. Although greed may be a hidden element standing behind many of the other categories, it is clearly not the major cause of most homicides as it is on television.

On prime time, then, criminals rarely act out of monetary passion, mental imbalance, political conviction or any of the other myriad causes that lead people to break the law. In television entertainment the lawbreaker usually wants just one thing he wants more.


Criminals on television are a bad lot. Most are the perpetrators of particularly brutish acts which they consciously choose to commit on the basis of pure self-interest. Viewers will be relieved to learn, however, that most get their just dessert before the final credits.

As Table 12 shows, over two out of three criminals in our sample were defeated either arrested, killed or otherwise thwarted in their aims. Compared to the 68 percent who suffered defeat, success was achieved by a miniscule 8 percent or one criminal in 12. Another 4 percent resolved to change their ways and the remaining 20 percent came to no clear plot resolution. A common fate for criminals was exemplified by a drug-dealing police sergeant on Enos who is tortured by his own men (4/15), and an extortionist on Vegas who is killed by his even greedier partner (3/25).

If these results are reassuring to law and order advocates, comparable figures for serious crimes provide even greater relief. About four out of five TV lawbreakers who committed FBI Index crimes were defeated and only 5 percent were successful. The figures for homicide were virtually identical: 81 percent defeated, only 5 percent successful and 14 percent unresolved.

Anyone faintly familiar with the criminal justice system is aware that these figures bear little relation to the realities of crime and punishment in America. The most recent FBI crime Index figures indicate that, in the majority of cases, crime does pay. Table 13 shows that of all serious crimes in 1980, fewer than one in five resulted in an arrest. Moreover, this "clearance" rate of 19 percent for Index crimes does not take into account whether the actual perpetrator was the one arrested or whether the arrest ultimately led to conviction. The police did somewhat better in the case of violent crimes, achieving a clearance rate of 44 percent. Yet even that arrest rate means that a substantial majority of violent crimes went unsolved.

On television, by contrast, even combining the successful perpetrators of serious crimes with those whose fates were not resolved produced only one in six who escaped punishment. The results for violent criminals were virtually identical. Of course it is hardly surprising that TV scripts punish the perpetrators of violent and evil deeds. We note only that the self-imposed principle that crime must not pay during prime time brings the scriptwriters into conflict with real life.