In a Flyover State: On Corporate Responsibility

With the Charlie Sheen situation and all the controversy surrounding
MTV’s Skins, there has been a lot of talk recently
about corporate responsibility.

I sat through all the corporate responsibility
and ethics classes that you have to suffer
through while getting an MBA at a top-tier
school. And to be clear: Just because I was
playing online poker most of the time during
those classes doesn’t mean I didn’t pick up a
few things.

Maybe it’s because of my MBA background
that I look at these situations from a very
black-and-white place: the balance sheet. The
bottom line is that as long as a company isn’t
breaking any laws or really doing anything
over-the-top awful, then the definition of corporate
responsibility in my mind is rewarding
your shareholders by increasing the value of
your company, period.

So when people say MTV with Skins and CBS
and Warner Bros. with Charlie Sheen are acting
in a negligent fashion, I’m sorry—I don’t buy it.

When MTV put on Skins, it knew what it was doing. As long as no laws were being
broken, the only thing they were guilty of is
putting on a bad show that has turned into a
great race between viewers and advertisers to
see who can run away the fastest.

Apparently neither thinks a story line built
around some kid’s priapism (look it up; I’m
not getting in trouble with HR…again) has
the same cachet as other great television, like
for instance a pint-sized girl collapsing in a
drunken heap on a New Jersey beach.

The Sheen situation seems more complex,
but it is not dissimilar. The bottom line: I
can’t see how CBS and Warners are guilty of
“enabling” Sheen, as some have surmised.

A friend of mine asked me recently if I had
a drug-addicted reporter who showed up
to work on time but kept screwing up after
hours, would I look the other way? My honest
reaction is I would probably reach out to his or her friends and family, but I would
hardly consider myself enabling that behavior
by continuing to employ the person.

Then there is this thinking, which may be
harsh, but true: If they were enabling Sheen,
so what? CBS and Warners aren’t charities.
Their jobs are to milk what they have as
much as they can. TV shows have a very short
window. If a hit show stays hot for five years,
that is one hell of a run. The fact that American
is still doing what it does at 10 will go
down in TV lore. So should CBS and Warners
be doing everything they can to get as many
episodes as they can now? Absolutely. That’s
their responsibility to the shareholders of
their parent companies. I don’t know about
you, but when I buy stock, I want a return. If
I want a feel-good story, I will turn on OWN.
(OK, no I won’t.)

How about athletes? When a superstar is
succeeding, no one cares about the other stuff
off the field. Heard a lot about Michael Vick’s
dog-fighting past lately? No, because he had an
MVP-caliber season. And if Tiger Woods ever
starts winning like Tiger Woods, his indiscretions
will go the way of Kobe Bryant’s (alleged)
actions. Do you even remember those?

One network president said to me last
week about Sheen: What could really be
done legally, even if the network and studio
wanted to act? What could they sue Sheen for
if he is turning up to work consistently, albeit
not always in top form? When the director
says “action,” if the employee is there and
performing his duties, what is the lawsuit?

Now, to their credit, I was told that execs
from both CBS and Warners staged something
of an intervention a couple of weeks
ago. Were they being good people, or protecting
their investment?

I’ll leave that to you to decide. But as a
shareholder, I can tell you which one I would
care about.

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