Emmys 2015 in a More Divided Union: Education, Partisanship, and Game of Thrones
It’s no secret that life as a youngish DC urbanite often does not resemble the lives of many Americans outside the Beltway. I spend my limited free time at the gym, at happy hour or networking events, dealing with Metro delays, and making my way through the new restaurants that pop up weekly. I look at my Facebook friends from my Midwest high school and often struggle to identify with them anymore.
Most recent example: Planning my almost-yearly Emmy party. Many of my local friends (or those in other major metropolitan cities) and I watch nearly all the shows and discuss them regularly: Game of Thrones theories at the bar, Piper’s Orange is the New Black antics at brunch. And yet, when I visit my small hometown in Minnesota (Bachmann Territory), these conversations are rare (as is brunch as a social event).
A recent nationwide survey of 1,000 adults by Global Strategy Group shows with data what I and friends in similar circumstances have observed for years: how Americans watch TV—and what they watch—varies by geography, education, income, and political ideology.
Why does this matter? With the rise of more TV consumption options (premium channels, online subscriptions like Netflix and Hulu), studios can make the shows they want and be successful even if fewer people watch them (which, some have argued, has led to higher quality television). People can watch the shows that interest them and not be forced to sit through “whatever’s on.” Everyone wins.
Maybe. If all of this was only about TV, it would remain interesting, but trivial. But, in an era when people live in more politically homogenous neighborhoods, marry outside their education status less and less, see their more ideological beliefs confirmed on social media, and where even our alcoholic beverages correlated with likelihood to vote and political party, the segregation of our television entertainment is yet one more example of the growing number of things that separate and polarize Americans. We have fewer opportunities to find commonalities; to exist in shared experiences, and use them to build relationships with those who are different.
The Loss of Appointment Television
When it comes to television, it didn’t used to be this way. Back when broadcast networks dominated the airwaves, Americans had no choice but to watch what was on, when it was on. But with more options to watch increasingly personalized media that appeals to nearly every demographic niche, the highest rated shows no longer reach the large swaths of the population that they once did. At its peak in the 50s, nearly 70 percent of households with televisions watched I Love Lucy (though, of course, fewer people had TVs). In the 80s and early 90s, about a quarter to a third of television sets tuned in to follow the families of The Cosby Show and Rosanne. And now? The most watched show on television for last two years: Sunday Night Football, viewed by less than 15 percent of households with televisions.
Can online viewing make up the gap? Will appointment TV become redefined as collective binge watching? Unclear. Much like cell phones have disrupted the polling industry, the rise of digital subscription services have left ratings systems in flux. Nielson measures broadcast and cable, plus DVR views up to a week later. It has historically not measured online viewing, though that is very recently starting to change.
How We Got Here: The Rise of HBO, AMC, and Netflix
Emmy Award ratings have trended downward, with some recent upticks in viewership the last couple years thanks to creative lead-ins and scheduling experiments. Fewer network shows nominated for big awards partially explains the decline. Critically acclaimed network comedies and dramas were at first displaced by premium channel shows, like HBO’s Sex and the City and The Sopranos, and later, by basic cable original programming (Mad Men, Breaking Bad).
Now, the rise of original shows by online subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have further eroded broadcast network dominance—both in award nominations and in ratings. As early as 2005, every single nominated comedy series (and 3 out of 5 drama series) aired on network TV—meaning nearly anyone with an antenna had free access to the majority of nominations. This year? Three of the best drama or comedy nominees are network shows (or PBS): Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and Downton Abbey.
The results? Emmy producers are forced to plan a major awards show in which less than a quarter of the adult population have seen the majority of nominated shows. Other than Modern Family—viewed by a little more than half of respondents—the remaining 13 nominated shows boast no more than 26 percent viewership (Game of Thrones) down to 7 percent (Transparent).
Who Watches Critically Acclaimed Television
More importantly, these viewers represent a specific niche of our population: they are obviously younger considering the rise of digital platforms—but they are also more likely to be college educated, self-identify as Democrats, and often have higher household incomes.
Drama series tend to have larger partisan divides—and higher viewership generally. A third of Democrats, 33 percent, watch Game of Thrones, compared to 21 percent of Republicans. Orange is the New Black has a nearly identical gap. But the largest partisan divide is not found on premium or online services. Rather, by 18 points, more Democrats watch ABC’s Modern Family (64 percent) compared to Republicans (46 percent).
Education correlates with further viewership differences: those with higher levels of education attainment are more likely to watch Emmy nominated television, with especially pronounced gaps in the drama categories. Some of these differences may be explained by the higher-cost of viewership for the premium channels needed to watch Game of Thrones, Homeland, and to some extent Mad Men. And yet, the largest difference in viewership between college graduates and those with some or no college education occurs with Downton Abbey, airing on PBS.
The one show that cracks 10 percent viewership and boasts relatively consistent viewership across multiple geographic, political party, education, and income demographics? FX’s Louie.
The week after the Emmys, for the second time in as many years, Congress could very likely shut down our government: the outcome of increasing polarized politics that rewards ideologues and often sees weakness in building relationships with the opposite “side”; a failure of compromise, negotiation, and the ability to work with those who are different. As more things divide Americans, do we not risk losing our ability relate to others, to empathize, to make decisions from a place of understanding, even if we haven’t lived the same lives? I don’t know; maybe Congress should watch more Louie.