Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


You Don't Know America

red-blue-tv

(Photo: Nik Merkulov/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.