Because of research I’ve done on the relationship between entertainment and politics, I’m often asked how TV storytelling will change after Trump’s election. In our survey research at the Norman Lear Center, we have found over the years that the most popular shows on primetime broadcast TV appeal most to a group we call the “Purples,” 24% of the population that doesn’t fall neatly into Red or Blue ideological buckets. Here’s a quick overview of their unique constellation of political positions:
• Deep anxiety about the economy.
• Deep skepticism about the Iraq War isn’t working.
• Strong enthusiasm for protecting the environment
• Disgust with political leadership
• Deep suspicion of Corporate America and support for regulation
• Strong belief that women and men should share household duties equally
• Strong support for public schools
• Respect for immigrants, who are here “for work, not a handout”
• Mixed feelings about trade protectionism
• Optimism about new technology
• Belief that security is more important than liberties
• Strong belief that freedom is more valuable than equality
• Strong preference for diplomacy over use of force in battles against terrorism
• Strong sense of compassion for the less fortunate
• Ambivalence about the role of religion in public life
• Evenly split on regulation of gun ownership
• Strong support for cutting taxes
A glance at their ideological positions reveals how difficult it is to appeal to them in our current two-party political system. However, primetime TV storytellers appear to have cracked their code and captured their attention: compared to Reds and Blues, the Purples were, by far, the most inclined to enjoy mainstream TV offerings.
But after the surprising election of Trump, several prominent TV producers and creators have admitted publicly that they felt the need to re-evaluate their storytelling — in part, because they didn’t feel like they understood their audience anymore.
In a recent New York Times piece, writers from Madam Secretary, Veep, House of Cards, and Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the many changes they made to their shows post-election. Ironically, they all felt the need to remove plot elements that too closely reflected the current reality, for fear that they would be accused of simply ripping stories from the headlines (remember that stories are written long before they’re shot and aired). The general response among writers on shows that highlight the hypocrisy and corruption of Washington — Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal — was that their melodramatic and ridiculous scenarios were apparently coming true, and they were going to be hard-pressed to concoct the unbelievable storylines that they thought they were churning out before. However, Rhimes, who believes that her core audience is composed of Obama supporters, is reluctant to simply ramp up the outlandish storylines typical of Scandal. While it was fun to tell “horror stories” about misbehavior in the Beltway while Obama was in office, she feels that her audience might not want those stories anymore:
Our show is basically a horror story. Really. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out . . . But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic. You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere.
Executives in Hollywood are straining to figure out how they can attract Trump voters to their fictional fare, without alienating the rest of the nation, but Rhimes — who is the current queen of primetime — has a slightly different take:
I get really offended at the concept that what came out of the election was that — how do I say this? — impoverished people who are not of color needed more attention. I thought that was kind of crazy, that they might need more television. They have television. It just felt very strange to me. And I thought really, the people who really need to be spoken to are the 50 percent of the population that did not vote at all. Those are the people who need to be more engaged.
Our entertainment and politics surveys targeted registered voters, but among that population, the Purple group was the one most likely to admit to not voting. This might suggest that Rhimes is really on to something here. Could primetime fare be optimized for 160 million non-voters? And how might those stories be crafted in order to increase the liklihood of future political engagement . . . such as voting? Whoever cracks that code will not only take over Hollywood but will become the most powerful political force in this divided nation.