A House United: How are Cultural and Political Preferences Related?

Earlier this year, I wrote a post for the PBS Media Shift Idea Lab blog, answering "What Does Popular Culture Have to Do With Civic Media?." The post was a reaction to a Communication Forum conversation I moderated between Cass Sunstein (Infotopia), now a legal advisor to the Obama campaign and his fellow Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks). One of the CMS graduate students had tried to get the law professors to reflect on the political uses of popular entertainment and I sought to expand upon that issue here. Here's part of what I wrote:

While ideological perspectives certainly play a role in defining our interests as fans and media consumers, they are only one factor among others. So, we may watch a program which we find entertaining but sometimes ideologically challenging to us: I know conservatives who watched The West Wing and laugh at The Daily Show; I know liberals who enjoy 24 even if they might disagree about the viability of torture as a response to global terrorism. Television content provides a "common culture" which often bridges between other partisan divides within the culture, even in the context of culture war discourses which use taste in popular media as a wedge issue to drive us apart.

So, a fan group online is apt to be far more diverse in its perspectives than a group defined around, say, a political candidate or a social issue. This is not to suggest that fan communities do not form firm consensus perspectives which block some other ideas from being heard, but they form them around different axis -- such as desired sets of romantic partnerships between characters -- which may or may not reflect ideological schisms. There may be rich discussions, then, about the philosophy of education which should rule at Hogwarts, just not on which character constitutes the most appropriate life partner for Harry Potter.

At the same time, the nature of popular culture means that it continually raises social, political, and ethical issues; popular media projects something of our hopes and fears and as such, it provides us a context for talking through our values.

Two recently released studies shed further light on the relationship between our cultural preferences as fans and our political commitments as citizens, suggesting that our media consumption habits may break more sharply along political lines than I might have previously imagined.

The first comes from Nielsen IAG which looked at the ways cable viewership broke down according to political preferences. Specifically, the research is conducted as part of their ongoing effort to understand the nature of media "engagement." As they explain in their blog, "Engagement" refers to the amount of attention paid to a television program by the average viewer. Nielsen measures TV engagement by questioning a representative panel of viewers about their recall of specific telecasts' content."

Their research suggested that those programs on cable which received the highest overall engagement scores also received the most "bipartisan" interest -- meaning that they attracted and "engaged" viewers from across the political spectrum. Yet, they also identified some programs whose viewerships broke decisively along ideological lines.

Among those programs attracting the greatest Democratic viewership were: The Colbert Report (Comedy); The Deadliest Catch (Discovery); It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX); Ax Men (History); Tin Man (SciFi); My Boys (TBS); and I Love New York (VH1).

Among those programs attracting the greatest Republican interest were South Park (Comedy); Cash Cab (Discovery); Damages (FX); Battle 360 (History); Doctor Who (SciFi); The Bill Engval Show (TBS) and Rock of Love With Bret Michaels (VH1).

Among those programs attracting the greatest interest among independents were The Cleaner (A&E), Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo), The Next Food Network Star (Food), HGTV Design Star (HGTV); Army Wives (Life), The Hills (MTV), What Not to Wear (TLC), and Saving Grace (TNT).

It is significant that the study was conducted using cable-based programing. Historically, cable has been associated with narrow-casting strategies which target specific demographic groups and niche communities, while network television has adopted a broadcast or "consensus narrative" model which seeks to appeal to the broadest possible viewership.

Personally, I am a little surprised that I watch more shows on the Republican list (Damages, Doctor Who) than on the Democratic list (The Colbert Report). This takes me back to all of those old jokes that "my Tivo thinks I'm gay." Now, the Nielsen company thinks I'm Republican. But this brings us back to my original point that even where shows do seem to skew towards particular ideological perspectives (I suppose we can read Damages as expressing an outrage over the abuses of "trial lawyers" or Doctor Who fans make see John McCain as a bit like a Time Lord in that he had been an eyewitness during many other historical periods), they never absolutely break down according to purely ideological commitments and that makes them a particularly vital space for us to have conversations about our hopes, ideals, and values as a nation.

The Second Study was conducted by the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center and Zogby International and released Sept. 19 2008. Their key finding was that consumption of entertainment properties broke decisively along political lines, though again, not absolutely. As their press release reported, "While 22% of conservatives said they 'never' enjoy entertainment that reflects values other than their own, just 7% of liberals felt the same way. At the other end of the scale, just 11% of conservatives said they 'very often' enjoyed programming that ran counter to their personal philosophies, compared to 20% of liberals and 18% of moderates who said the same thing." Their research identified House as "one of the very successful TV shows with almost an equal number of adherents across the political spectrum."

The report divided Americans into three different taste communities, Reds, Blues, and Purples. Here's part of their description of each:


Reds are the largest ideological group in the U.S. They tend to live close to other family members and they're much more satisfied with their spiritual, family and personal life than the rest of the nation. ....Reds tend to get their news from cable TV and radio, and they much prefer Leno to any other late-night programming.... Their favorite fictional TV shows are House and CSI; their favorite summer movies were Indiana Jones and The Dark Knight.


Blues are the second largest ideological group in the country. Almost all of them think the U.S. is on the wrong track, and they are far more likely than the rest of the country to be unsatisfied with their personal, family, business and social life. They are more tolerant of the media than other Americans, but they are more likely to get their news from comedy shows than from any of the network TV newscasts. More than any other group, they get their news online, and they use Wikipedia.... They like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and their favorite TV show is 60 Minutes. Many Blues dislike reality programming - more than Reds and Purples. For late-night, they prefer The Daily Show.


Purples are the smallest ideological group, and in many ways they fall between the Red and Blue camps.... Like Blues, most get their news from the Web, but they are more likely than any other group to use the Web to find information about celebrity gossip, TV shows, movies, games, music, fashion, shopping, books, relationships and sports. Purples are more likely than Reds or Blues to say playing games and listening to music is the most enjoyable thing to do online. Unlike Blues, Purples prefer MySpace to Facebook (it's a tie for Reds).... Purples say watching TV is their favorite leisure time activity, and their top three shows are Law & Order: SVU, 60 Minutes, and CSI. Purples like reality programming more than any other group, and American Idol is their favorite. They prefer Letterman and Leno over all the other late-night programs.

Those of us who have read Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction shouldn't be surprised to learn that tastes operate as a system: those of us who share a significant number of preferences in common are more likely to find overlaps on other preferences, even those which superficially seem unrelated. Here, it is clear that political and cultural preferences are closely aligned, especially as they relate to openness to embrace new ideas or to experience works which reflect a "foreign" perspective.

Here are a few other data points from this research which I found particularly interesting (text taken directly from the Center's Press Release):

  • Fox News wins the prize for the most politically divisive TV channel (70% of conservatives watch it daily and only 3% of liberals).
  • Over 82% of conservatives say they never watch MTV. The only other station from our list that they watch less is Univision (84%).
  • Who has a sense of humor? Not only do liberals give Comedy Central a big thumbs up (31% watch it daily, compared to 6% of all other respondents), you are more likely to find them watching comedies than moderates or conservatives.
  • Out of 15 TV and film genres, "arts" emerged as the one with the highest positive correlation to liberal viewers and the highest negative correlation to conservative viewers. In other words, while 48% of liberals prefer arts programming, only 17% of conservatives do. At the other end of the scale, less than 5% of liberals say they do not like the genre at all, compared to almost 25% of conservatives.
  • Out of 15 musical genres, conservatives were more likely than the rest of the respondents to listen to only two of them: country and gospel. What genre are they least likely to listen to, compared to the rest of the respondents?...World music is also the music genre where we see the greatest difference between conservatives and liberals.

Given this data, here's the fun question to discuss over lunch today: If this presidential election represents a moment of political realignment, what impact will it have on the entertainment programming which gets produced and consumed over the next few years? And for that matter, might House turn out to be, ironically, the series which teaches us all how to get along? Or turning the lens around, does your fandom attract more red, blue, or purple viewers and why? Talk among yourselves -- but also talk to someone who believes differently than you do.

Thanks to Joshua Green for calling the Nielsen study to my attention.