JULY 2014 IN

Politics as a TV Show (With No One Watching)

Politics and television form one of the current great ironies of U.S. culture. More money than ever is being spent by corporate interests on politics, and that money is going specifically into television, in an attempt to turn the political process into a kind of a TV show. Already you could think of American politics as a TV show, where making the right appearances on television is seen as the key to success. The political money is turning up the stakes on traditional television ideals such as lighting, makeup, hair, and one-liners. Writers in the back room try to keep the political story line coherent. A fair number of voters have bought into this TV presentation.

Yet at the same time, the trend away from television, underway for nearly a decade, has become undeniable this year. For the first time in history the U.S. TV audience is declining in raw numbers, even if analysts disagree about whether the turning point was 2012, 2013, or 2014.

TV was never quite embraced by America’s rich and powerful. They might be seen conspicuously watching the Grammy Awards or the World Series, but in general, they would profess not to have time to watch to watch television, and for the most part, that is actually true. People who have a strong sense of purpose in life, strong enough to try to create and destroy businesses and otherwise run the world, are less likely than most to sit on a sofa and try to kill a few hours. And for good reason: studies of success do find a striking negative correlation between television viewing hours and financial success. Separately, there has always been a elitist or bookish clique that considered television too brash and pretentious for them, and that group hasn’t gone away.

What is new is a decisive move away from television in its traditional form by a generation of young intellectuals. For many of them, television is just too expensive and inconvenient, but they can also offer a long list of other arguments against television viewing.

If politics is a TV show, then, some of the most important people aren’t in the audience. The men behind the curtains have no time to watch television themselves, and must content themselves to read summaries of TV talking points in media outlets such as Politico. Similarly, the workers involved in the political process, from the political activists to the television production assistants, also lead busy lives and are likely to miss what is happening on TV. At the same time, the younger voters who the political insiders would most like to persuade also are not watching. So the people creating the message are not watching it themselves, and the targeted audience is also absent. There is, to be sure, still a huge audience of political TV-watchers, but this group tends to consist of the more passive participants in the political process. This passivity means the TV audience members are not so likely to vote on election day.

The political financiers will continue to pour money into television as long as they think they are meeting with some success stories, but the appearance of a successful television campaign is bound to occur from time to time just by random chance even if no one at all is persuaded. Political TV, then, is slowly turning into a money pit in which tycoons can waste billions of dollars while persuading themselves that they are getting something done. In a way, it’s best that we don’t let them find out their money is going to waste. When you compare it to war, smuggling, assassinations, bribery, and the other things that power-hungry tycoons might spend their money on, a little televised political theater seems actually relatively harmless.

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