Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for politics

Post-Trump TV Storytelling

Because of research I’ve done on the relationship between entertainment and politics, I’m often asked how TV storytelling will change after Trump’s election. In our survey research at the Norman Lear Center, we have found over the years that the most popular shows on primetime broadcast TV appeal most to a group we call the “Purples,” 24% of the population that doesn’t fall neatly into Red or Blue ideological buckets. Here’s a quick overview of their unique constellation of political positions:

• Deep anxiety about the economy.

• Deep skepticism about the Iraq War isn’t working.

• Strong enthusiasm for protecting the environment

• Disgust with political leadership

• Deep suspicion of Corporate America and support for regulation

• Strong belief that women and men should share household duties equally

• Strong support for public schools

• Respect for immigrants, who are here “for work, not a handout”

• Mixed feelings about trade protectionism

• Optimism about new technology

• Belief that security is more important than liberties

• Strong belief that freedom is more valuable than equality

• Strong preference for diplomacy over use of force in battles against terrorism

• Strong sense of compassion for the less fortunate

• Ambivalence about the role of religion in public life

• Evenly split on regulation of gun ownership

• Strong support for cutting taxes

A glance at their ideological positions reveals how difficult it is to appeal to them in our current two-party political system. However, primetime TV storytellers appear to have cracked their code and captured their attention: compared to Reds and Blues, the Purples were, by far, the most inclined to enjoy mainstream TV offerings.

But after the surprising election of Trump, several prominent TV producers and creators have admitted publicly that they felt the need to re-evaluate their storytelling — in part, because they didn’t feel like they understood their audience anymore.

In a recent New York Times piece, writers from Madam Secretary, Veep, House of Cards, and Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the many changes they made to their shows post-election. Ironically, they all felt the need to remove plot elements that too closely reflected the current reality, for fear that they would be accused of simply ripping stories from the headlines (remember that stories are written long before they’re shot and aired). The general response among writers on shows that highlight the hypocrisy and corruption of Washington — Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal — was that their melodramatic and ridiculous scenarios were apparently coming true, and they were going to be hard-pressed to concoct the unbelievable storylines that they thought they were churning out before. However, Rhimes, who believes that her core audience is composed of Obama supporters, is reluctant to simply ramp up the outlandish storylines typical of Scandal.  While it was fun to tell “horror stories” about misbehavior in the Beltway while Obama was in office, she feels that her audience might not want those stories anymore:

Our show is basically a horror story. Really. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out . . . But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic. You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere.

Executives in Hollywood are straining to figure out how they can attract Trump voters to their fictional fare, without alienating the rest of the nation, but Rhimes — who is the current queen of primetime — has a slightly different take:

I get really offended at the concept that what came out of the election was that — how do I say this? — impoverished people who are not of color needed more attention. I thought that was kind of crazy, that they might need more television. They have television. It just felt very strange to me. And I thought really, the people who really need to be spoken to are the 50 percent of the population that did not vote at all. Those are the people who need to be more engaged

Our entertainment and politics surveys targeted registered voters, but among that population, the Purple group was the one most likely to admit to not voting. This might suggest that Rhimes is really on to something here. Could primetime fare be optimized for 160 million non-voters? And how might those stories be crafted in order to increase the liklihood of future political engagement . . . such as voting? Whoever cracks that code will not only take over Hollywood but will become the most powerful political force in this divided nation.

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11 Things You Didn’t Know About Documentary Film Lovers

hotdocs

I was honored to give the Industry Keynote at Hot Docs, a giant documentary film festival in Toronto. I don’t know what they put in that water (which was delicious, by the way) but Torontonians love, love LOVE documentaries. They have a 700 seat theater that, year round, shows docs only, and I was completely charmed by its tagline: ESCAPE TO REALITY.

Of all conventional TV and film genres, you could easily argue that documentary is the one that is most self-conscious about its artful manipulation of reality. Since much of my research focuses on the impact of entertainment and media on individuals, communities and society at large, documentaries have proven an especially exciting object of study. (I have a TEDx talk about some of this research.)

In order to prep myself for the fest – which included a whopping 197 documentaries – I thought I’d revisit some survey research that we conducted at the Lear Center on the relationship between political beliefs and entertainment preferences. We discovered in those studies that predictable patterns emerged suggesting that even our escapes from reality – to ballets, tractor pulls, and blockbuster films – were tethered quite tightly to our deeply held beliefs about the world and how it ought to be.

For a nerd like me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

Our archive of data – from two large American representative sample surveys, and from a smaller version we conducted in Tunisia after the Arab Spring – includes detailed demographic, ideological and taste information about documentary film fans. Hot Docs gave me an excellent excuse to mine that data. Read the rest of this entry »

The Politics of Personal Taste

I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior.  One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.

One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. “Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.

What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)

Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.

I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.

Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.

We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic  film, Innocence of the Muslims.

We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.

  • “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
  • They were more into video games than reading.
  • When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
  • We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
  • They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
  • They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.

So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.

We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations.  And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.

We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.

For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.

The War on Drugs – On Primetime TV

Check out Joe Sabia’s video summary of our report on how primetime TV dramas depict the War on Drugs

Ever wonder what it would be like to parachute down to earth, turn on a TV, and learn about the aliens who live here? Well if someone did such a thing, and they tuned into the most popular primetime shows in America (many of which are viewed by billions of people around the world) they would see a lot of story lines about the War on Drugs. And they would probably come to the conclusion that it’s not working.

In other words, they would probably agree with the majority of Americans: in a rare sign of unity across party lines, 63% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 70% of Independents describe the War on Drugs as a failure.

This issue came to international attention last weekend at the Summit of Americas, where both current and former presidents across Latin America demanded changes in America’s conduct of the 40-year-old war that has caused decades of chaos across the continent.

On the eve of 4/20 – long associated with cannibis culture and the growing movement to legalize marjuana – the Norman Lear Center released Joe Sabia’s video summary of our research on how the War on Drugs is depicted in primetime. Major findings included:

• In TV storylines about the War on Drugs, drug users are not arrested and drug suspects are often portrayed as morally ambiguous or even heroic.
• In these TV shows, 65% of drug suspects are white, accurately reflecting that the vast majority of drug users (and likely offenders) in the U.S. are white.
• Despite the predominance of African-Americans and other minorities in U.S. prisons for drug violations, most drug manufacturers and dealers in the series studied were white.
• Prescription drug abuse and methamphetamines were depicted three times more often than recreational marijuana.

Our final report (gorgeously designed by Veronica Jauriqui and authored by myself and Sheena Nahm) contains all the key findings from both our analysis of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Check out my blog on the War on Terror findings and Joe Sabia’s excellent video summary at www.primetimeterror.com.