Does entertainment TV influence voters to choose populist leaders?
A new study of the voting preference of Italians since the mid-eighties published in the American Economic Review, one of the most prestigious and distinguished journals in the field of economics, actually claims a direct relationship between sustained consumption of entertainment TV and a tendency to vote for populist parties.
Do regular consumers of melodramatic entertainment TV display a greater tendency to vote for parties and leaders that promise easy and quick solutions to long standing and complex problems? It may sound like too obvious a conclusion, too condescending in fact, or almost exactly what the much-reviled anglicized liberal elite in India wishes everyone to believe. Are such commonplace assumptions just another lazy opinionating from a sore loser, talking down to the majority voter? A new study of the voting preference of Italians since the mid-eighties published in the American Economic Review, one of the most prestigious and distinguished journals in the field of economics, actually claims a direct relationship between sustained consumption of entertainment TV and a tendency to vote for populist parties. While there is no need to accept the conclusions of the study as a universal truth without any reservation, it is useful to pay greater attention to the study and its possible ramifications elsewhere in the world, especially in countries like India which have seen an explosion of entertainment television over the last 30 years or so, along with an increasing tendency to vote for populist parties and politicians.
Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti and Andrea Tesei, the three authors of the paper called ‘The Political Legacy of Entertainment TV’, in the current issue of the journal (vol. 107, no. 7, July 2019), are affiliated to Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Bercelona, Bocconi University, in Milan, and Queen Mary in London, respectively. They begin the paper with citing earlier studies that show that news programmes influence viewers’ voting decisions while entertainment programmes weigh significantly on the viewer’s non-political positions such as gender attitudes or consumption preferences. They allude also to studies showing that exposure to entertainment TV at an early age affect cognitive skills, and viewers respond more enthusiastically to entertainment programmes as compared to educational programmes. Against this background, they focus exclusively on whether or not long exposure to entertainment TV predisposes the voters to choose populist options. Whether or not, that is, entertainment TV influences political behaviour of voters in a particular manner, it contributes to three distinct but interrelated areas of media, communications and cognition research: how consumption of distinct strands of newscasts contributes to specific political choices, how consumption of entertainment TV affects cognitive abilities, especially in the younger audience, and how populist political parties mobilize electoral support.
The paper studies the phased expansion of Mediaset, the TV network owned by the Italian tycoon turned politician Silvio Berlusconi, across various municipalities in Italy during the 1980s. It takes up roughly similar municipalities and divides them into two groups, those which were exposed to Mediaset earlier and those which were exposed later, since 1985, and compares their voting preferences since then. Incidentally, this was nearly ten years before Berlusconi entered politics in 1994. Besides, the study focuses on relatively small municipalities where victories were unlikely to offer huge political gains.
Private television channels were banned in Itaty until 1976, except at the local level. Some clever private operators used to broadcast syndicated material across a number of local markets at the same time, but they were not a major player yet. Between 1980 and 1984, Berlusconi himself launched and bought over several such channels, consolidating them under the Mediaset network by 1985. Until then, Berlusconi faced several interdictions by the courts in Italty, and once came close to the Mediaset transmitters being confiscated, following an adverse order by the courts. Fortunately, by 1ate 1984, all restrictions on private TV broadcasting were lifted, by the government of Bettino Craxi, one of Berlusconi’s early backers. Soon after, Mediaset went on an aggressive expansion drive, acquiring their own transmitters and moving into fresh markets. Within two years, high-quality Mediaset signals successfully reached about 87 per cent, and in five years they had reached 98 per cent of the Italian population. They were now matching state broadcaster RAI in reach and influence. Curiously enough, following a new communications law approved by the parliament in 1990, no new national level broadcasting license was issued subsequently, and Rai and Mediaset have since enjoyed a duopoly.
There was a dramatic difference in the programming schedule of the two channels. Mediaset aired more hours per day, focusing almost exclusively on light entertainment and movies, and devoting little or no attention to educational or instructive content. It did not start newscasts until 1991. RAI was on air for fewer number of hours, and focused largely on news and educational content. Based on a study of critics’ ratings of movies aired on Mediaset and RAI respectively, the authors show that the movies aired on Mediaset almost always received worse ratings, meaning Mediaset tended to run lower quality fare.
As is well known, Berlusconi did not exhibit any conspicuous desire to enter politics until about 1992 or so, when a series of scandals practically dissolved the conservative coalition that had been ruling Italy and Berlusconi was worried that a new leftist coalition might seize power and seek to reform the media industry, which effectively meant an end to his hegemony there. By the end of 1993 he had launched his Forza Italia party and was preparing to contest the 1994 elections.
Berlusconi’s entry completely changed the political landscape. He spoke disparagingly of professional politicians, portrayed himself as an outsider, used uncomplicated language and catchy slogans and made alliances with ideologically diverse political platforms. Forza Italia was essentially a personality-driven party, with little focus on local base or large numbers of ground-level members.
This style proved remarkably successful. Berlusconi became the Prime Minister in 1994, and although his first run in office was rather short lived, he would win again in 2001 and 2008, losing narrowly in 1996 and 2006. He had become a major political player as soon as he debuted and remained one until 2013, when his party lost to the five-star movement (MS5), another populist formation.
The study found that the voters who were exposed to Mediaset before 1985, when they aired only light entertainment, displayed a greater likelihood to vote for Forza Italia in 1994 and later. The tendency persisted until 2008, across five elections and almost 25 years. Curiously enough, when Berlusconi’s party finally ceased to be a major player in 2013, the same voters tended to vote for MS5 which too was a populist formation.
It found also that the effect is more pronounced on heavy TV viewers, that is, those who watch TV for longer hours. The effect is much greater for those who were exposed to it at an younger age, and to entertainment programmes. For children, it appeared to have a negative effect on their cognitive abilities, in that they fared poorly in standardized literacy and numeracy tests. In addition, they display less interest in public affairs, such as interest in politics or participation in voluntary associations. Berlusconi’s party was disproportionately popular among the less educated and the less engaged voters, and therefore stood to benefit enormously from a decline in the cognitive abilities and civic engagement induced by entertainment TV. Based on an analysis of a large collection of interviews of political leaders and other publicity material, the paper shows that Berlusconi and his party used a language and rhetoric that appealed far more to the less sophisticated voters.
The 34-page paper is largely technical and full of mathematical tables and jargon, although it is accessibly written. The most striking section is the one that correlates the consumption of entertainment TV to a decline of cognitive skills and interest in public affairs among those exposed at an early age. The authors work out an indirect but credible method for measuring the intelligence of those exposed at early age to entertainment TV. They accessed data from the army archives, since joining the army was compulsory in Italy until 2004. Every conscript has to undergo a psychometric test which, among other things, measures their intelligence. It appears that those conscripts who were likely to be 7-12 years old during 1985 and belonged to the municipalities where the Mediaset signals were the strongest displayed a high tendency to fare poorly in those tests and a greater probability, as much as eight per cent from the baseline, to be rejected by the army. Overall, the study showed a clear reduction in cognitive sophistication and civic engagement following exposure to entertainment TV, but only for those who were exposed at an early age. Finally, the same individuals displayed a greater probability to vote for populist parties since 1994, and this tendency survived the fall of Berlusconi’s party.
What kind of relevance does a study like this bear for a country like India or a populist party such as the BJP or the opposition, such as the Trinamul Congress, TDP or DMK, which too are not at all immune to the influence of populism? There is no dearth in India of parties based on a single personality, or leaders setting themselves up as an outsider to the political system, or claiming to represent the less educated or the marginal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recurring jibes at the so-called Khan Market elites, for instance, are at best a veiled reference to the political class as a whole. Plenty of other career politicians in India keep referring all the time to their purportedly outlier locations, ostensibly to mobilize support. Before Modi, Manmohan Singh was repeatedly projected in the media as an outsider to the mainstream power politics in Delhi, as though his location equipped him with additional merit. The point here is not about individual leaders, but about the assumed political capital such a positioning appears to embody, or the appeal it appears to carry to the average voter.
Frankly, the study appears all too neat, and yet its empirical rigour is hard to dispute, given its impressive methodological innovations and empirical thoroughness. However, India is not neatly divided into only two major TV networks, and it will be hard here to collect and analyse precise data about the launch and spread of individual TV channels. Nonetheless, readers who recall the controversy about the sudden launch and even more mysterious disappearance of Namo TV before the 2019 general elections will certainly be interested in studies of how TV influences cognition and voting preferences across India. There have been qualitative studies of the connection between the onset of cable TV and mythological serials in India on the one hand and the rise of the right-wing political parties, but few of them have been as empirically rigorous as this one. There are scores of reports on the thousands of Whatsapp groups that send targeted messages to first-generation smartphone consumers in India and their contribution to the rise and shine of the BJP. Yet, there is little by way of accessible empirical details. The data may be hard to access, or the archives may well be barred to academic researchers. But that is where academic professionals have to display greater imagination and methodological innovativeness, such as how these economists worked out the decline in cognitive sophistication among those exposed at an early age to light entertainment TV in Italy.
Cognitive decline in young population or the rise of populist politics are not exactly marginal concerns, nor is consumer behavior in an emerging economy. Billions of dollars are devoted to researching such questions all over the world, and still very little is known about them that can be used as generalized knowledge. It is high time that researchers and funding organizations in India and elsewhere decided to invest in such studies. We have far too many studies on the criminalization or caste-ization of politics in India, but all of them focus excessively on the leaders and the parties. It is time the consumer-as-voter behavior is systematically studied in India, except during the pre or post-election surveys. Besides, studies of consumer or voter behavior call for intersectional hypothesis and unorthodox methodologies. Given that the government has lately been rather concerned about the waning standards of research in India, studies such as these may serve as useful guides to the directions where sophisticated multidisciplinary research has been moving elsewhere.
There is no need to accept the conclusion of the study as gospel truth, for it is indeed far too directly obvious. Nothing, however, prevents researchers in India to undertake comparably sophisticated studies and come to their own conclusions.
(The writer teaches at the Karnavati University in Gujarat)