Are we what we watch on TV?

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Ed­i­tor-in-chief Neil God­bout

Afas­ci­nat­ing (but flawed) study was pub­lished this week, link­ing the po­lit­i­cal views of Amer­i­cans to the TV shows they watch. Be­fore there were hun­dreds of spe­cialty chan­nels, stream­ing ser­vices and YouTube, back in the Stone Age when TV was watched on nearly square low-def­i­ni­tion screens from a sig­nal that came in through an an­tenna on the roof, ev­ery­one – both in the U.S. and Canada – watched the same shows, re­gard­less of their pol­i­tics or where they lived.

The study, Are You What You Watch?, shows those days are long over (with a few no­table ex­cep­tions) as mil­lions have re­treated to po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural si­los that bet­ter re­flect their world­view.

The re­searchers sur­veyed 3,096 Amer­i­cans on 37 eco­nomic and so­cial is­sues. Based on their an­swers, the re­spon­dents were placed in one of three buck­ets that

– in Cana­dian lan­guage – would be called con­ser­va­tive, lib­eral and in­de­pen­dent. The lib­er­als were those strong­est in favour of abor­tion, immigratio­n, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, re­li­gious free­dom, same-sex mar­riage and so on. The con­ser­va­tives were those strong­est in favour of gun own­er­ship, tra­di­tional views on mar­riage and gen­der, the po­lice and the military. In­de­pen­dents held both con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral views – de­voutly re­li­gious en­vi­ron­men­tal and racial equal­ity ac­tivists, for ex­am­ple.

The study found that the in­de­pen­dents

watched the most TV, fol­lowed by the lib­er­als, with the con­ser­va­tives con­sum­ing much less tele­vi­sion than the oth­ers. When they did watch TV, how­ever, con­ser­va­tives leaned heav­ily to­wards crime dra­mas like NCIS, Blue Bloods, CSI and Law & Or­der, along with light, whole­some fare on net­works like Hall­mark.

Lib­er­als, mean­while, lean to­wards more com­edy, favour­ing the late-night shows, Mod­ern Fam­ily and Fam­ily Guy.

In­de­pen­dents are all over the TV view­ing map, en­joy­ing Duck Dy­nasty, Danc­ing With The Stars and other re­al­ity-based pro­gram­ming as much as more ad­ven­tur­ous adult shows like Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story, Or­ange Is The New Black and The Walk­ing Dead. They are also the most likely to seek out for­eign shows.

There was some over­lap, of course, but not much. Just two shows – The Simp­sons and The Big Bang The­ory – are en­joyed by more than half of the re­spon­dents in all three groups. Con­ser­va­tives love Game of Thrones as much as lib­er­als and in­de­pen­dents do but far fewer con­ser­va­tives watch Game of Thrones com­pared to the other two groups.

Criminal Minds, Bones, Mythbuster­s and Amer­ica’s Fun­ni­est Home Videos, are en­joyed by mem­bers of all of the groups in roughly equal pro­por­tion.

The Tonight Show was an in­ter­est­ing out­lier. When Jay Leno was the host, con­ser­va­tives were the most fre­quent view­ers but when Jimmy Fal­lon took over as host, the show fell out of favour with con­ser­va­tives but shot up in pop­u­lar­ity among lib­eral watch­ers.

There are sig­nif­i­cant is­sues with sur­veys, how­ever, from this study to opin­ion polls to in­ter­views with busi­ness lead­ers like the City of Prince George’s Busi­ness In­sights Re­port. The most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber is that what peo­ple do (or don’t) and what peo­ple say they do (or don’t) are of­ten dif­fer­ent, as the eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble data on Google Trends shows. What peo­ple tell re­searchers they’re in­ter­ested in and what they type into search en­gines are of­ten com­pletely dif­fer­ent.

Take gay pornog­ra­phy, for ex­am­ple. Res­i­dents in con­ser­va­tive states are just as likely to ask Google for links to gay pornog­ra­phy as states that vote for more lib­eral politi­cians.

On the flip side, take gun laws. Res­i­dents in lib­eral states are just as likely to ask Google for links to in­for­ma­tion about gun laws as states that vote for more con­ser­va­tive politi­cians.

It’s re­sults like these that sug­gest link­ing per­sonal pol­i­tics to TV view­ing shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth. Lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives alike will have their guilty plea­sures, both in terms of their favourite shows, and in what they tell Google in the pri­vacy of their home.

The in­de­pen­dents, who made up 18 per cent of the study, seem to be the most hon­est in de­scrib­ing their TV likes and dis­likes. Not only do they not care about how their choices may look, they’re proud of that diversity.

Why can’t both Un­cle Si and Trevor Noah be funny?

And maybe what we watch says less about us as in­di­vid­u­als and po­lit­i­cal groups and more about what we want when we sit down to watch TV. Our jobs and our home lives might dic­tate our TV view­ing habits as much or more than our pol­i­tics.

Peo­ple with stress­ful jobs and long hours who come home to face fi­nan­cial and health is­sues may lean to­wards what they would freely ad­mit is mind­less, es­capist en­ter­tain­ment.

Con­versely, those who en­joy fi­nan­cial and job se­cu­rity, along with a sta­ble home life, may like noth­ing more than to think deeply while watch­ing hard-hit­ting news doc­u­men­taries and weep un­con­trol­lably dur­ing de­press­ing med­i­cal dra­mas.

And then there are those who will watch both, de­pend­ing on their mood that mo­ment.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing find­ing of the study is that peo­ple, whether it’s their pol­i­tics, their TV view­ing pref­er­ences or both, can’t eas­ily be la­belled be­cause con­tra­dic­tions are ram­pant. In other words, we’re all far more in­ter­est­ing than what we watch or how we vote.

Now there’s some re­fresh­ing news.

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