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In a Flyover State: On CorporateResponsibility

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 Idol 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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