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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 10, 2012 |


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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