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How Our Television Reinforces Our Politics

• February 13, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Nik Merkulov/Shutterstock)

Political stereotypes can be traced through America’s television-viewing habits.

It’s no surprise that however you think the average person comes into money probably determines where you fall on the political spectrum. What may be somewhat revealing, though, is the way in which a person’s television-viewing habits informs or reinforces his or her opinion on the issue. And this extends beyond one’s choice of news channel, which, according to a Gallup poll conducted last summer, remains the nation’s primary source for keeping up with current events. No, here we’re talking a preference in sitcoms, dramas, sports, and reality TV.

According to one study released in November 2010 by the media-research company Experian Simmons, some of the most popular Republican shows include The Amazing Race, American Idol, Survivor, Dancing With the Stars, and Desperate Housewives. Democrats, on the other hand, prefer Mad Men, Dexter, 30 Rock, The Good Wife, and Damages. Out of the top 15 shows for each political affiliation, not one of them appears on both lists.

“Looking at the Democrats side, I don’t mean to make light of it, but they seem to like shows about damaged people,” said John Fetto, senior marketing manager at Experian Simmons. “Those are the kind of shows Republicans just stay away from.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are most likely drawn to shows that reaffirm their respective world views, help cultivate them, or both.

In December 2011, Experian Simmons released another survey in which self-identified “Conservative Republicans” and “Liberal Democrats” once again shared their viewing habits. The Right favored titles such as Swamp Loggers, Top Shot, The Bachelor, Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy, Pawn Stars, The Biggest Loser, and NCIS. The Left tilted toward The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The View, Glee, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

As Entertainment Weekly put it, “‘sarcastic’ media-savvy comedies and morally murky antiheroes tend to draw Dems. While serious work-centered shows (both reality shows and stylized scripted procedurals), along with reality competitions, tend to draw conservatives.”

In October 2012, The New York Times published the results of a TiVo-based study, which found that while registered Republicans tend to watch golf, registered Democrats have a penchant for cartoons, as in Family Guy and American Dad. Republicans also like NASCAR and reality TV competition shows such as The Biggest Loser, Survivor, American Idol, and The Amazing Race. Democrats prefer to watch the sitcoms 30 Rock and Community, AMC dramas The Killing and Mad Men, and late-night funny guys Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

In general, the article suggested, TV-viewing trends between Republicans and Democrats were “every bit as polarized as the political culture.” And yet again, not one network show favorite appeared on both sides of the divide.

Last August, in an article highlighting the difference between red and blue Americans’ interest in watching the premiere of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, reporter Reid Wilson of the Washington Post summed up what all the statistics above are implying: “Republicans like to watch live sports and reality television shows. Democrats prefer sitcoms and The View.”

There are certainly many other ways of interpreting the above studies along the lines of age, race, sex, class, location, education, and all the other factors that sway people to do what they do. And it would certainly be ridiculous to assume that Republicans and Democrats never ever watch the same shows. They do. (Then again, these days a record-breaking 42 percent of Americans no longer identify as belonging to either party.) But this all makes sense.

Both Republicans and Democrats are most likely drawn to shows that reaffirm their respective world views, help cultivate them, or both.

What, for instance, typically happens during a game of football or episode of American Idol? People train, compete, struggle, overcome, lose, and win. Everyone doesn’t always approve of the outcome, of course, but the underlying principle in these types of programs is that a strong work ethic, mixed with talent and strategy, is required for success.

What about humorous sitcoms? What are they all about? Criticism, often. Criticism in the form of jokes about tradition, relationships, work, religion, and the government.

As for serious dramas, John Fetto, the senior marketing manager at Experian Simmons, made an interesting point: Democrats like shows about damaged people, while Republicans do not. So either Democrats are sadistic, or they find something intriguing about hurt people navigating their way through an ambivalent universe. And then there’s the attraction to antiheroes, who, by definition, exist in the nuances between good and bad, right and wrong.

Presently, one of the most popular shows on television is AMC’s zombie-apocalypse scenario The Walking Dead. In December, the Los Angeles Times reported that it’s the “highest-rated series in the history of cable TV.” So, who’s watching?

According to New York ad firm Horizon Media, the serial drama currently has a median viewer age of 33.2. Given the show’s genre and relatively young audience, it’s tempting to assume that most eyeballs belong to liberal voters. As a sarcastic-yet-somewhat-true article published on the Huffington Post points out, however, The Walking Dead explores many themes some Republicans might enjoy, such as limited government and zero gun control.

Perhaps Republicans and Democrats will agree on how one gets ahead when doomsday comes to permanently interrupt all regularly scheduled programming, but for now it seems they’ll remain tuned in to their respective ways of viewing the world.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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