You've heard of Target vs. Walmart voters, Whole Foods liberals vs. Cracker Barrel conservatives. We know about them thanks to a specialty within politics called "microtargeting," a strategy of finding the intersection of corporate branding and political preferences. Here's the latest example: The market research firm Experian Simmons recently put out a list of the 25 TV shows most watched this fall by liberals and conservatives. Note that no sports or news shows were included. Nor were the thousands of Republican debates.
Some of the most popular shows among self-identified liberal Democrats: Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the Colbert Report were the top two shows respectively, both on Comedy Central. By far the most popular network was NBC, with shows including 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, The Office, and Parenthood. Late-night comedy shows by David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Craig Ferguson were listed, as well as E!'s The Soup. Other programs liked by liberals include sitcoms such as Glee, Modern Family, Outsourced, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Raising Hope, United States of Tara, and Cougar Town. No. 3 on the list: Masterpiece on PBS. The list is full of sitcoms and other comedy shows, with only one reality show, the fashion-oriented Project Runway. The only documentary is PBS's American Masters, featuring biographies of cultural icons. No crime shows at all.
Some popular shows among those who call themselves conservative Republicans: No. 1 is Collector Car Auction on the Speed network (the home of NASCAR coverage), followed by This Old House on PBS. The third most popular program is The 700 Club. There are more shows dealing with fixing up houses, selling cars, battling wild animals (Man vs. Wild), shooting guns (Sharpshooters), and testing science projects (Mythbusters). Conservatives seem to like shows documenting life in America: Swamp People and Swamp Loggers and the History Channel's Only in America. The only late-night comedy is Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Three shows, Auction Kings, Antiques Roadshow, and American Pickers, deal with salvaging and recycling; Pawn Stars documents negotiations in a Las Vegas pawn shop. There are four crime shows, and three reality-contest shows (The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, and The Biggest Loser). The only sitcom is ABC's The Middle, whose promo reads: "Forget about athletes, movie stars, and politicians. Parents are the real heroes." Most popular network: the History Channel.
Think of these lists like you would a political poll—a snapshot in time of a fluid electorate. It could all change tomorrow. But here's my take on it: You could say liberals probably have a better sense of humor. They're big on irreverent, very sophisticated, cynical humor, often with a dark side aimed at the big institutions of our society; they like to make fun of big corporations, traditional families, education, the government, and the news media. No wonder the Occupy Wall Street movement has so many targets. Shows like these explain in part the skepticism and disillusionment of younger viewers and, really, younger voters. The one show that seemed a little out of place was Masterpiece on PBS, full of period dramas and novels brought to the small screen. My theory is that Masterpiece is popular among the well-educated liberal elites that the Obama campaign is targeting. The campaign might want to buy ad time.
Conservatives are not big on sitcoms, preferring instead to watch shows having to do with real-life hobbies: driving fun cars, hunting, fixing up houses, salvaging for treasures, surviving in the wild. Quite a few programs, from Antiques Roadshow to Pawn Stars to Auction Kings, focus on how much things cost, which might appeal to many on the right who are focused on out-of-control government spending. The do-it-yourself aspect of many of the shows explains perhaps why so many Tea Partyers and fiscal conservatives actually have started running for office—reforming government is the ultimate fix-it project. Judging from shows like Only in America (No. 10 out of 25), American exceptionalism is alive and well with these viewers. Among grass-roots conservatives, crime shows are very popular, fashion shows not so much. Two of the reality shows listed, Dancing with the Stars and The Biggest Loser, to some extent focus on hard work and earned success. Perhaps The Bachelor is an allegory for what GOP primary voters are going through.
There's absolutely no overlap between these two lists, not one show in common. Maybe that explains the polarization we're seeing in politics, especially at the extremes. But when you look at the most popular shows according to Nielsen, the ones watched by the majority of Americans—presumably, a group of mostly independent voters in the middle—you see a different list. Again, taking sports and news out of the mix, the most popular shows on broadcast and cable channels were crime shows (The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles, NCIS, CSI, Law and Order, and Blue Bloods). Two were salvage-related (Pawn Stars and Storage Wars). There were a few kids' shows on Disney and, of course, for the holidays, we had Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
So while there is no overlap between left and right, there is between the viewers in the middle and the conservatives on the right, namely, they all like crime shows and programs about getting a good deal on old stuff. If you look at it that way, you could say that we're still a center-right nation of law-abiders, problem-solvers, and money-savers. And that at least some of us still believe in Santa.