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Television is Better Today (And Worse): Political Science Says So

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 10, 2012 | Comments ()


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This is an article about the relationship between politics and television, but not in the way you think. It's about how what we know about political systems tells us a lot about the sorts of television that we get.

Duverger's Law is one of the few honest to goodness laws that political scientists can agree on, both because it is very intuitive, and because it is easily demonstrable in every day politics with few of those endless messy exceptions that tend to swamp most laws of political science with noise. What Duverger's Law says is simply that the reason why some countries end up only two mainstream political parties, while other countries have several, is an artifact of the structure of the electoral system. Countries with proportional voting, which means that if a political party gets 10% of the vote, it gets 10% of the seats in Parliament, generally end up with several main political parties. Countries with district-level voting (the American system), in which the politician with the most votes in each district gets to go to Congress, generally end up with exactly two main political parties.

Let's say that you are the proud leader of a radical segment of the population that insists colonizing Mars should be the first national priority (hey, it's possible to be a good extremist). Ten percent of the population agrees with you, and is willing to vote for your candidate for President, a certain Mr. Lazarus Long. Under a proportional system, you get your ten percent of votes and land ten percent of the seats in parliament. But if your candidate ran under a district system, you could win ten percent of the vote in every single district in the country and not win a single seat in Congress, because someone would always come in ahead of you in every district.

So what's a party to do? Either join up with another party that doesn't share your views on space travel, or run in elections that you know you'll lose just to make the point of principle. Of course, every vote your party gets is a vote you could have used to put your second choice party over the top. And so, it's in the electoral interest of small parties to not break away from large parties, because to do so merely increases the chances of throwing the election to the guy who you really don't like.

What does this have to do with television? Back in the golden age of television when there were only a handful of channels, the behavior of television networks was a lot like the folks running political parties in district systems. In order to "win" an advertising block, the behavior most rewarded by the system was to put on broadly appealing shows, rather than anything that approached a niche market. If you went for the niche, you'd just lose the quantity of viewers to the other two networks. Or to relate it more directly to the political metaphor, it never made sense to run a program that would appeal to 10% of the population, because you'd lose the other 90%. Running anything more "niche" than something that appealed to a third of the population was less profitable than just putting up something with broad appeal. But as the quantity of channels went up, that magic number crept down, such that there was enough broadcast time in the day that appealing to less and less people became profitable.

But a further implication of this proliferation of television derives from another nuance of voting. Consider an election with three candidates: Romney, Obama, and Hitler. Let's say for the sake of an example that 34% of the country are terrible extremists who the rest of the country shuns. Of the other 66% of the country, half would rank the candidates Obama-Romney-Hitler, and half would rank them Romney-Obama-Hitler. And the end result is that Hitler wins the election 34% to 33% to 33%, getting the plurality of votes despite being the least preferred candidate. In certain electoral systems, the extremist candidates do better than everyone else, provided that all the other candidates divide their votes.

The same principle applies to television programming. Let's say that you have a terribly idiotic show like "Two and a Half Men" that only appeals to say, twenty percent of the population. That show makes no business sense in 1970. But when all the viewers who like high quality and intelligent programming are divided up into a dozen different sub-niches, a few million for "Breaking Bad", a few million for "Community", etc., then even if those viewers individually add up to more than twenty percent, they're still going to lose every popularity contest to shows too stupid to get on the air in 1970. All the people with taste agree that "Two and a Half Men" sucks, but because they can't agree on what is number one, Asthton Kutcher becomes Hitler in our metaphor. Yet all of those small shows are only on the air because the proliferation of networks means that it's rational for networks to appeal to niche audiences.

Yet at the same time, those other niche shows exist for the same reason. The endless reality crap with small audiences gets the chance for the exact reason that quality niche shows get a chance.

The disappearance of the generally likeable show with broad appeal is a consequence of this. The viewers with taste are going to go to the niche quality shows and so the big shows collapse more into idiocy, no longer having a need to be at least minimally entertaining to those with higher (or lower) standards.

Television: it's better and worse than it ever was.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Strand

    In Australia, our two main political parties are so centrist and vanilla that no-one would know if it government changed hands without being told, hence the apathetic consistently vote for niche candidates. I live in a fairly yuppie-ish, liberal suburb and the Green, Sex and Fishing parties get a stupid amount of votes and thus, actual authority instead of being swept under the rug by the 2 party system.

  • marya

    This principle was one of the most eye-opening things I learned in my *ahem* liberal arts education. It's why I get bored when people rant and rave about third party candidates in the US. You're going to have to abolish the electoral college before you're going to get Rand Paul elected, friend.

    Of course, proportional representation isn't some magical answer where every fringe element gets their wishes fulfilled. Once elected, representatives have to form and reform into voting blocs in order to get legislation passed, so you end up with "mostly right of center" and "mostly left of center" coalitions made up of similar but not identical factions - exactly like our parties.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Sorry Steven, but the analogy falls flat. You can't compare elections (where you have to decide for one or two parties/candidates, depending on the system) with television shows. You can like more than one or two shows, and you can even watch them when they run at the same time, thanks to technology. The 'polling' system for the popularity of TV shows is broken, because it does not take changing viewing patterns into account.

  • luckypete

    except that the way ratings are still tallied (Nielsen ratings) is based upon the old technology, which ignores DVR and the interwebs and all that. Which is why there's such an outcry to modernize the ratings system, in effect to move away from the two-party system to a parliamentary ratings system.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Sure. Except that you still have to decide on one or two candidates/parties at an election, but you can like more than two TV shows. An election system where you are able choose all the representatives you want is pretty much an impossibility.

    In politics, you have to choose (even if you choose not to partake). In entertainment, you don't.

  • John G.

    so parliamentary systems behave like parliamentary systems because they were set up that way and 2-party systems work like 2-party systems because they were set up that way. somebody made a law for that?

  • marya

    No one had to make a law, it's just the natural, inevitable result. Just like no one made a law that human beings have to obey market forces and opt for the dollar menu at taco bell.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    So it's a leeeeeetle more complicated than that. The US wasn't actually set up as a 2 party system; a 2-party system was just the outcome of the winner takes all system we have.

    Of course other factors can overrule the obvious. Think about Japan, which had basically just a one-party system (with factions) for a long time, even though it had a version of a parliament.

  • L.O.V.E.


    "Asthton Kutcher becomes Hitler in our metaphor"

    Does that make the fat kid Colonel Klink?

  • Guest

    "Asthton Kutcher becomes Hitler in our metaphor" - might be the best thing I've ever read

  • celery

    I just thought I would let you know that my family has a Polish crested chicken named Guest, and every time I see one of your comments I imagine it comes from someone who looks like this: http://www.livingscape.com/ima...

  • Guest

    "Asthton Kutcher becomes Hitler in our metaphor" - might be one of the best things I've ever read

  • Aaron Schulz

    Hey look he thinks hes smarter then he is again, weee!

  • Strand

    'then (sic).' Oh golly.

  • marya

    You're not putting up much of a counter argument, Aaron.

  • POINGjam

    "Than." You dummy.

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