Aug 31, 2019

Two Americas, tuning each other out

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Data: Google; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The country's heightening polarization extends even to the television we watch, severing another thread of America's collective consciousness as it gears up for the 2020 presidential election.

Why it matters: Americans used to have only a few TV options, leading to moments of mass culture like The Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or the "M*A*S*H" finale. But just as the spread of social media jumpstarted political tribalization, the rise of cable and streaming services has necessitated a need for a wealth of content — increasingly targeted and niche — that has hastened a cultural splintering.

The state of play: That split is evidenced by the geographic schisms in Google interest in two programs — HBO's "Succession" and USA's "WWE Raw" — which both air weekly to similarly-sized audiences.

  • "Succession," a comedy-drama about the machinations of the ultra-rich family running a media conglomerate, kicked off its second season this month with constant coverage in the country's papers of record (see: "The Making of Wealth Porn") and a slew of awards nominations. Its search interest is highest on the coasts and in the priciest cities in the U.S., like New York and San Francisco.
  • Meanwhile, "Raw," the wrestling extravaganza in its 26th season, hasn't had a mention in The New York Times in the past year, even as it had the second-most social media interactions per episode of any TV series in 2018, according to Nielsen. And its search interest is decidedly clustered in the Rust Belt and the South — in other words, prime Trump country.

Traditional network shows also face this same divide, according to a SurveyMonkey poll from Business Insider.

  • "Last Man Standing," Tim Allen's unabashedly conservative FOX comedy series, was listed by 65% of conservatives as one of their five favorite shows — and 0% of liberals. And NBC's "The Good Place," a philosophy-heavy comedic look at the afterlife, was a top-fiver for 59% of liberals but just 6% of conservatives.
  • Last year's ill-fated reboot of "Roseanne" on ABC — now spun off as "The Conners" following its titular star's racist Twitter tirade — was the rare show that tried to bridge the political divide, briefly becoming the highest-rated sitcom in years when it first premiered, per The Hollywood Reporter.

The big picture: This television tribalization isn't just limited to entertainment programming. During any given week, the list of the most-watched shows across cable television is dominated by Fox News — with a few appearances by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow — highlighting how political punditry so often functions as entertainment in Americans' media diets.

The bottom line: As more and more streaming services with their own cloistered libraries spin up, highlighted by the launch of Disney+ later this year, expect this trend to only accelerate.

Go deeper: The media battle over radicalization

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