Axeing Charlie Sheen is not enough

The real problem is the executives who hired the disgraced TV star, nurtured him, cosseted him, and helped to destroy him.
Alistair Nicholas | Mar 9 2011 | comment  

Charlie SheenDomestic violence, drug addiction, drunkenness, two and a half divorces, two live-in prostitutes. Sounds like a typical script for one of the most popular comedies on American television, “Two and a Half Men”. In fact, it is the recent life of the show’s star, Charlie Sheen.

And when Sheen started acting out in real life the kind of script that Hollywood producers wrote for him, they fired him. “After careful consideration, Warner Bros. Television has terminated Charlie Sheen's services on 'Two and a Half Men' effective immediately,” said the press release.

The trigger for this move was an anti-Semitic tirade against one of the show’s producers after Sheen’s latest alcohol-drug-and-sex-fuelled bender.

Of course, anti-Semitism is deplorable. But why did the network wait until Sheen showed his bigoted side to wield the axe? Sheen had been behaving badly for years. At least one of his two ex-wives (the third has only just commenced divorce proceedings) and at least one ex-girlfriend has asked for restraining orders. Police have been often called to his home and hotels during domestic incidents. His attitude to women is unspeakable.

But, hey, that’s an exact match with the way Warner Brothers describes Sheen’s popular show:

“It's a comedy about men, women, sex, dating, divorce, mothers, single parenthood, sibling relations, surrogate families, money and, most importantly, love. More specifically, it's about the lives of two brothers, one brother's son, and the many women who surround them. Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) is a well-to-do bachelor with a house at the beach, a Mercedes in the garage and an easy way with women.”

If Hollywood were held to the exacting social responsibility standards applied to any other industry or company, its reputation would be in tatters and its spin doctors would be in damage control overdrive. A corporate executive – even at CBS or Warner Brothers – behaving the way Sheen has done would have been dismissed long ago.

But Hollywood is different. It is allowed to destroy lives – not just of actors, but of audiences.

It’s sad to see the Hollywood publicity machine chew up and spit out an actor like Charlie Sheen. It’s even sadder when young men model their lives on his character Charlie Harper. This is the corporate social responsibility issue that Hollywood is ignoring.

Hollywood stars are photographed weeping over earthquake victims in Haiti or denouncing genocide and famine in the Sudan. And Hollywood corporations are devoted to environmental causes, particularly reducing carbon emissions. Indeed, the Corporate Social Responsibility website CSRwire recently praised the film industry's efforts to cut its carbon emissions.

If Hollywood were a coal-fired power plant this would be a meaningful gesture. But Hollywood’s real pollution problem can’t be solved with recycling and energy-efficient building. What about the pollution of teenaged lifestyle?

If we expect oil, gas, chemical and manufacturing companies to remediate damages, what about Hollywood? 

Case study 1: the popular “music-comedy-drama” TV series, "Glee". This show has swept the top awards –Golden Globes, People’s Choice, and Peabody – and the cast even performed at the family event of the White House Easter Egg Roll last year. The production is slick and the cast exceptionally talented.

But behind the music and dancing are sub-plots of teenage (and teacher) hormone-fuelled sexual desire and consummation, with promiscuity and adultery the order of the day and justified by the subjective morality of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves (eg, a teacher who “falls into” an affair with another teacher because his own marriage is stuck in a rut).

The scenes and visuals are often explicit. One episode featured a dance routine with simulated sex. The plotline called for the school to ban it because it was too raunchy and offensive to community standards. If only the producers were so sensitive. They had no qualms about broadcasting the show in a family-viewing prime time slot.

Case study 2: Pink’s latest music video clip for the song “F*$%ing Perfect”. Apart from the coarse language, the clip starts with a blatant sex scene. Pink seems to have no regard for the possible effect this might have on the young teenagers amongst her fans.

If a parent showed their own child a video clip of a couple having sex, the child would go into foster care and the parent would be charged with child abuse. So why can Pink enter our homes and show inappropriate scenes like this to our children?

Hollywood argues that it’s up to parents to decide what their children listen to or watch. But when streaming media is at everyone’s finger tips, parents need to maintain 24/7 vigilance to keep their children from viewing inappropriate content. This is impossible. Even if parents control their own homes, how can they control the homes of their children’s friends?

This is not an argument that Hollywood uses with smoking, mind you. Some of the characters in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech smoked, so the producers inserted a solemn message warning viewers against the horrors of smoking.

What about some messages about the dangers of casual sex? At 750,000 per annum, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the world. More than 20 million Americans are said to be infected by the sexually transmitted HPV virus linked to cervical and throat cancer, with six million new infections occurring every year. Given that condoms don’t provide full protection against the virus you’d think Hollywood would do more to promote abstinence and committed relationships, at least in “family” programs.

The world of "Father Knows Best", "Leave it to Beaver", or even "The Brady Bunch" is gone forever. But Hollywood could do a lot more to promote healthier lifestyles – both physical and psychological– than it currently does.

Come on, Hollywood: figure it out. Corporate social responsibility, the big buzz in business, is not rocket science. You just need to link it to where you actually carry responsibility for harm done by your industry. It hasn’t been too hard for power plants and chemical factories to figure out what they need to fix. It should be a no-brainer for Hollywood with all that talent getting paid those big bucks.

Alistair Nicholas is a reputation management consultant based in Beijing, China. His company, AC Capital Strategic Consulting, has provided crisis management advice and services to numerous companies operating in China. Alistair blogs on reputation management at Off The Record.

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