Blue Velvet TV rooms

Bluescreen_1Longtime New York Times television writer Bill Carroll has applied the blue America vs. red America motif to TV programming, finding that “choices of viewers, whether in Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, New York or Birmingham, Ala., are remarkably similar.”

Carter’s report may give many conservative readers a small sense of just how tiresome red-and-blue generalizations have become for their liberal neighbors. Consider a sentence like this one: “So if it is true that the public’s electoral choices are a cry for more morally driven programming, the network executives ask, why are so many people, even in the markets surrounding the Bush bastions Atlanta and Salt Lake City, watching a sex-drenched television drama?”

OK, I’ll give you Salt Lake City (SLC Punk notwithstanding), but Atlanta is now a “Bush bastion”? Carter soon qualifies that description a bit: “In the greater Atlanta market, reaching more than two million households, ‘Desperate Housewives’ is the top-rated show. Nearly 58 percent of the voters in those counties voted for President Bush.”

That 58 percent may make sense depending on how broadly Nielsen Media Research defines Atlanta’s Designated Marketing Area, but it leaves an incorrect impression of a uniform 58-42 split across greater Atlanta.

The percentages vary more widely than that. Look at the overwhelming Kerry turnout in Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties and compare them to the overwhelming Bush turnout in other, sometimes rather smaller, counties that surround Fulton:

Bush 24,813 (70%)
Kerry 10,203 (29%)

Bush 55,447 (79%)
Kerry 14,090 (20%)

Kerry 50,445 (72%)
Bush 19,808 (28%)

Bush 173,206 (62%)
Kerry 103,720 (37%)

Bush 31,649 (74%)
Kerry 10,630 (25%)

Kerry 200,632 (73%)
Bush 73,527 (27%)

Bush 25,835 (61%)
Kerry 15,986 (38%)

Bush 37,322 (71%)
Kerry 14,862 (28%)

Bush 47,254 (83%)
Kerry 9,198 (16%)

Kerry 189,899 (60%)
Bush 123,670 (39%)

Bush 160,013 (66%)
Kerry 81,334 (33%)

(These numbers and percentages are from CNN’s richly detailed results map for the 2004 election.)

Should it be a great surprise that television audiences in greater Atlanta do not differ significantly from those in greater Los Angeles? And is it realistic to expect that exit polls from highly motivated voters should reflect the views of an entire metro county’s population, including nonvoters and slack-jawed yokels who never turn their TVs off?

Still, Carter gathered thoughtful remarks from people who try to help explain how a person might vote red but work blue as a couch potato:

Herbert J. Gans, professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of “Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste,” said, “For some people it’s a case of ‘I am moral therefore I can watch the most immoral show.’”

That point was echoed by Gary Schneeberger, the senior manager of issues for Focus on the Family, an influential evangelical Protestant group that urged its supporters to vote on values. “History has shown that even people who could be described as values voters are prone to sinful behavior and watching representations of sinful behavior,” Mr. Schneeberger said. “Is it shocking that people would be enticed by it? It’s not shocking, but it is tragic.”

He said he understood how some viewers might enjoy the murder-mystery aspects of “C.S.I.,” the No. 1 show his group has assailed for its graphic depictions of violence, even though justice is served most weeks. But, he added, “is it worth having to go through all this garbage to solve a mystery?”

My wife, who is a research scientist, likes CSI because it depicts other scientists helping solve crimes, she’s always been fond of murder mysteries and the show usually ends on a note of justice, however late or bitter. I can barely endure any show in the CSI franchise unless Sarah Foret, one of my nieces, is in a guest role (she recently played a stone-cold killer on CSI: New York).

Terry has called before for research on how entertainment affects the lives of self-identifying conservative Christians. I have a feeling the red-and-blue generalizations will not even hold at the level of households if that research is ever performed.

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  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    I’d like to see data correlating liberalism or conservatism with TV watching habits. I wonder if Fox is an anomaly, or the norm: conservative politically, but with no scruples at all regarding “entertainment.”

  • Andy Crouch

    What’s really missing from this article is what being “top-rated” means in terms of hard numbers. So the metro Atlanta DMA is 2M households–fine. But how many of those actually watch Desperate Housewives? I’m guessing it’s no more than a couple hundred thousand. Even with a 58-42 split, they could all be Kerry voters for all we know. The problem is the article doesn’t even attempt to answer that question. Really, all this article tells us is that **television watchers** are the same everywhere, whether red or blue territory. But television watchers do not necessarily mirror the general population. I’m not saying there isn’t a story here, and DH and CSI may in fact be disproportionately (or just proportionately) popular among Bush voters for all I know–but the article does not give us the information we’d need to make that determination.

    You rarely see hard viewership numbers (instead of percentages, “ratings,” etc.) in TV-industry stories, perhaps because using hard numbers would show so definitively that the television networks’ role as a cultural barometer is vestigial at best.


  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Andy wrote, “…television watchers do not necessarily mirror the general population.” I’m not sure about that. I do know a few people who don’t watch TV, but they are definitely in the minority. I agree that the article does not give us adequate information to answer the questions it raises.

    Darrell (one of the 37% of Cobb County residents, cited above, who voted for Kerry)

  • amm139

    Disappointing that the real story was missed here. What Bill Carroll was attempting to pin down, of course, was whether conservative [Christian] holy-rollers practice what they preach when it comes to TV viewing. And that is a really, really interesting–and important–question.

    I have long thought that rather than push to ‘clean up’ the airwaves, cultural conservatives should just get rid of their boxes. Why on earth doesn’t Jim Dobson wage a nationwide campaign for Christians to ditch their TV sets? We know quite a bit about TV viewing and children/adolescents–and the effects are almost uniformly negative. The more TV teens watch, the more likely they are to engage in early sex, for example. Now rather than push an abstience-only sex-ed agenda in public schools (which sound science shows over and over again is not effective in curbing teen sex/pregnancy without smart contraceptive ed.), why not curtail TV viewing among this age group?

    That’s just one example. But you get where I’m headed. I grew up an evangelical in red-state territory, and in my experience, cultural conservatives were rabid consumers of crap TV. My parents, political liberals, only allowed us to watch PBS, and we never ever had cable. Subsequently, we watched a lot of NOVA, and Nature, and Wonderworks, and McNeill-Lehrer. For my parents, TV was an issue where morality met up with sound science…They didn’t want us exposed to smut programming, and they knew that reading books an watching educational shows would only be a net benefit to our development.

    Why aren’t more Christians doing this?

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    I understood the real story, thanks, but I emphasized points that were less important to you than to me.

    If Bill Carter wants to measure the consistency of “holy rollers,” I think he needs better data than the general viewing habits of people living in greater Atlanta, Birmingham or, for that matter, Salt Lake City.

    Nielsen Media Research sells more detailed reports than what Carter mentions in his story, in case anyone has several hundred dollars to spend on those reports:


  • ralphg

    > I can barely endure any

    >show in the CSI franchise

    >unless Sarah Foret, one of

    >my nieces, is in a guest

    >role (she recently played a >stone-cold killer on CSI:

    >New York).

    Lessee, you’re saying that CSI is not acceptable, unless your niece acts like a murderer. How’s that work?

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    “Acceptable” is your word, ralph, not mine. I’m saying I find CSI an ordeal to which I would rather not subject myself — unless it gives me the opportunity to see my niece pursue her lifelong dream of being an actress. If that makes me a hypocrite, then I’m a hypocrite.

  • amm139

    by “here” i meant the NYT, Doug. Not the blog.

  • Andy Crouch

    From a TiVo, Inc. press release of 29 October:

    “The TiVo Season Pass Hot 100 ranks programs according to how many TiVo subscribers have requested a recording of the entire season of a show. “Desperate Housewives” comes in at number 3 on that list. About 18 percent of all 2 million TiVo boxes are programmed to record every episode in the inaugural season of the show. The number of Season Pass requests for “Desperate Housewives” has tripled since the show’s debut earlier this month.”

    So if TiVo households are a proxy for all TV households (big if, I know), then out of 2M households in Atlanta perhaps 360K are watching (or intend to watch, which is what the Season Pass measures) Desperate Housewives.

    Headline: 82% of Red-State Households Uninterested in Desperate Housewives, Ratings Show


  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Please forgive me for going off on you like that. I should have asked what you meant before jumping to a defensive conclusion.

  • Andy Crouch

    Remember, only ~ 22% of voters cited “moral values” (whatever that meant to them) in the exit polls. The 18% of TiVo watchers who express interest in Desperate Housewives could easily be drawn entirely, or disproportionately, from the 78% of Americans who didn’t put “moral values” first. Without better stats we can’t tell.

    Also, note that the Season Pass is an inexact indicator of actual viewing–I have a Season Pass for Joan of Arcadia but haven’t watched a single episode. But it’s a good proxy for what people would like to watch if they thought about it ahead of time, perhaps more revealing of their “values” than what they happen to watch when they’re flipping through channels. I frankly would be surprised if the Moral Values Minority are signing up for Desperate Housewives in disproportionate numbers. CSI would be less surprising to me–cultural conservatives’ relative tolerance, indeed taste, for commodified violence vs. commodified sex is well documented.

    I’m procrastinating on a column, if you couldn’t guess already…


  • Jill

    TV? What’s that? I got my computer, got my books, got my job, got my music . . . no time for TV here, except maybe to watch a special Hallmark movie or check the Weather Channel. (Well, okay sometimes I catch a little Emeril or somebody of his ilk on the Food Network. ;)

    Are we stuck now with the red and blue state labels? Will the underwear-wearing, or nail-biting habits of red and blue state people be investigated next? Is it possible to be purple?

  • Maureen

    People are allowed not to like CSI for many reasons: distaste for the cinematography or the characters, not liking forensic mysteries, not liking gross makeup and special effects, not liking the House of Bruckheimer. I like CSI now, but I don’t like the Miami or New York versions; and I didn’t like the show when it first came on.

    “Disliked/hated” does not equal “considered morally degenerate”. You can like a show but decide that it leaves a moral bad taste in your mouth, dislike a show but think it’s okay morally, or find some moral problems with a show but decide that the good things about it are good enough to outweigh the bad. You can even decide that the implicit moral lessons of a show are good ones, even though the explicit aims of the makers are bad or neutral. (“The dialogue says atheism, but the screen says ‘Believe in God’.”)

    So…of course there’s going to be a lot of differences between what viewers watch and what observers think they should watch, based on their beliefs. Especially if the observers don’t actually understand those beliefs in the first place.

  • http://crowhill.net/blog Greg Krehbiel

    So the country is divided into two parts, one that says “stop me before I view this again,” and the other that says, “I’m loving it.”