The Reign of Right-Wing Primetime
Is pleasing Republicans necessary for a hit show? You betcha. Why the GOP matters more to mainstream TV than you know
I’ll name a hit TV show, and you guess if it’s more popular among Republicans or Democrats.
First, NCIS — investigating military crimes on CBS. Safe bet conservatives love it, right?
How about ABC’s Desperate Housewives — a racy soap, female audience. Little more tricky.
Now things get tough: CBS’ geeky, atheist-friendly The Big Bang Theory, Fox’s megarated American Idol, ABC’s progressive Emmy winner Modern Family.
Which of these shows is favored more by Republicans?
All of them.
According to months of data from leading media-research company Experian Simmons, viewers who vote Republican and identify themselves as conservative are more likely than Democrats to love the biggest hits on TV. Of the top 10 broadcast shows on TV in the spring, nine were ranked more favorably by viewers who identify themselves as Republican.
Liberals appreciate many of the same shows, mind you. But their devotion typically is not quite as strong as right-wingers, and Dems are more likely to prefer modestly rated titles.
Like Mad Men.
The Emmy favorite has struggled to get a broad audience on AMC. It scores through the roof with Democrats (does anyone in Santa Monica or on Manhattan’s Upper West Side not watch it?), but it has one of the weakest scores among Republicans. The same is true for FX’s Damages, Showtime’s Dexter, HBO’s Entourage and AMC’s Breaking Bad.
And it’s not like Republicans have something against cable shows: The GOP has plenty of love for White Collar, Pawn Stars and American Chopper.
“The big shows with mass appeal tend to have above-average scores from Democrats and Republicans but with higher concentrations of Republicans,” says John Fetto, senior marketing manager at Experian Simmons. “Looking at the Democrats side, I don’t mean to make light of it, but they seem to like shows about damaged people. Those are the kind of shows Republicans just stay away from.”
That also goes for the soft-rated, critically beloved 30 Rock. Its score is highly polarized in favor of Democrats. The only show on NBC’s Thursday night comedy block that Republicans rate highly (slightly better than Democrats, even) is The Office ... which happens to be the one bona fide hit in the bunch.
All this isn’t to suggest Republicans are a perfect oracle of ratings success. Age certainly is a factor: Younger shows are more likely to be popular with Democrats, as is just about everything on the CW, as well as animated comedies like the Fox hit Family Guy. Republicans vote strongly for reality-competition hits, but such popular youthful docusoaps as Jersey Shore and Kourtney & Khloe are best appreciated by Dems. Likewise, left-wingers have a stronger affinity for certain veteran crime procedurals, including The Closer and Law & Order, as well as anything that appeals strongly to women.
But if you look at the list of broadcast shows that are Republican favorites, it closely mirrors the Nielsen top 10 list, whereas Democrats tend to gravitate toward titles likely to have narrower audiences.
To Hollywood, the data suggest a potentially disquieting idea: The TV industry is populated by liberals, but big-league success may require pleasing conservatives.
Was TV always like this?
There certainly was a period during the mid- to late-1990s when the Clintons were in the White House and Nielsens were topped by NBC’s young, progressive urbanites such as those on Friends, Mad About You, Will & Grace and Seinfeld, along with liberal-skewing dramas like The West Wing. But even back then during a progressive primetime heyday, there was plenty of Nielsen love for Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel and Everybody Loves Raymond.
“Historically, the shows that have done better are populist, mainstream and give us confidence in our public institutions,” TV historian Tim Brooks says. “For a while in the 1960s and early 1970s, shows started representing social rebellion, but broadcast quickly reverted to Happy Days.”
What has changed is the explosion on cable that has allowed networks to appeal to more specific viewpoints, from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to Fox News’ Glenn Beck. Moreover, if you’re a liberal viewer in a major city (which typically correlates with higher education) and you have such titles as Mad Men and Dexter to watch each week, are you going to also be interested in seeing a paint-by-numbers crime procedural on broadcast or a laugh-track-boosted sitcom? On the scripted side, at least, the explosion of complex dramas on cable may have ceded some of the broadcast ground to what one might label Republican tastes.
Of course, a broadcaster can attempt to program a cable-style complex drama, but then you’ll likely watch the show die faster than you can say Lone Star (or, for that matter, NBC’s longtime struggling Friday Night Lights, which skews Democrat in Experian data despite being about small-town football in Texas).
All of which brings us to …
Sarah Palin’s Alaska. TLC is set to make one of the biggest bets of the year by taking arguably the most polarizing figure in politics and giving her a reality show. The broadcast hits on Experian’s index tend to have at least some bipartisan support, but the lower ratings bar set for cable shows mean they get away with appealing to only one side or the other.
“Look at what happened in the election: A lot of people will tune in for Sarah Palin,” says Gary Carr, senior vp at media buyer TargetCast.
TLC president and GM Eileen O’Neill is likewise confident Palin will pay off.
“I’m really optimistic,” she says. “I think it could be one of our strongest shows out there. There’s a lot of buzz.”
Based on Experian’s data from last spring, TLC’s audience isn’t any more Republican than most other cable networks: But the channel gradually has been adding more heartland-friendly titles one would expect conservatives to appreciate. In addition to Palin, there are several “breeder” titles like 18 Kids & Counting. The network also just ordered a limited series, Homecoming, showing surprise military-family reunions.
Given the utter ratings domination of Fox News, demonstrated again during this month’s midterm elections, an entertainment channel branding itself as right wing could be a big idea. O’Neill, however, says TLC is apolitical.
“We’re doing hearth-and-home, and if that’s watched by people from various political perspectives, that’s their choice,” O’Neill says. “They’re mainly shows that Middle America finds enjoyable. We have a fairly diverse lineup, with liberal talent and characters around the schedule.”
Would being known as a conservative-friendly channel be such a bad thing, though?
“I don’t think a political agenda is the first thing viewers put on when choosing their channel — except in the news area,” she says.
Ideological-skewing shows don’t necessarily turn off advertisers, though. O’Neill says Alaska has sold very typically for a reality program, not particularly high or low.
“Palin’s going to be talking about Alaska: the Alaska salmon, the Alaska grizzly bear, the Alaska moose,” says Aaron Cohen, executive vp and chief media negotiating officer at Horizon Media. “As long as she doesn’t end up shooting the moose, I don’t think it will become a controversial program.”
And that’s key — controversy. Ad buyers agree an audience for a show can be 100% conservative or liberal, as long as the show’s content doesn’t make advertisers itchy or risk putting them in the crosshairs of a boycott campaign.
“There are people who are particularly polarizing to certain audiences, and advertisers will occasionally avoid that programming,” Cohen says. “[But] as long as they are buying clients’ products and services, I don’t care if they’re socialists.”
So, what have we learned today?
We’ve learned Republicans like winners. The shows might be considered fluffy, but they’re generally programs that make people feel good. If you’re a broadcast network executive weighing whether to buy a show, you might ask your uncle who voted twice for George W. Bush if he likes the idea. We’ve learned Democrats are, depending on your perspective, discriminating viewers who prefer highly original, well-written series or are cynics who enjoy watching jerks. We’ve learned Sarah Palin’s Alaska has the ingredients to be a hit, and one shouldn’t confuse TLC for being Republican just because its friends are.
Finally, we’ve learned that all this brain-baking data can only tell you so much.
Because it is still possible for a scripted broadcast series to rank higher among Democrats than Republicans on Experian’s index.
It’s even possible for that same program to top the Nielsen ratings week after week.
Particularly if that show is Glee.
-- Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report. Story from Hollywood Reporter's second weekly print edition, cover photo here.
Accompanying chart shows some of the highest scoring shows from Experian's Republican Index and Democrat Index. Other top-ranked shows include several CW titles on the Dem side (like 90210), partisan shows from the cable news networks (like Beck and Olbermann) and a few other titles with similar formats to the ones listed. See the latest issue of THR's weekly edition for an exclusive poll offering more insight into partisan TV picks.