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A Not-So-Divided Television Nation

Nov 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The electorate may be as divided as ever, but when voting with a remote control, liberal and conservative markets tend to have similar tastes.

Following the Nov. 2 election, which heightened the sense of there being an ideological divide between so-called red and blue states, TelevisionWeek examined season-to-date household ratings for 10 markets whose post-election results showed a strongly partisan stance and show rankings in urban versus rural counties. Though several examples confirm or break common assumptions about the partisan appeal of certain shows, the overall findings are clear: The country is united under prime-time television.

“One of the lessons is that whatever [a county’s] political or social leanings, they tend to be more alike than different,” said Tim Brooks, head of research for Lifetime. “There are a few shows that scream urban or rural, but most programs have no discernable political stripe to them.”

For the “blue” designated market areas, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Seattle were used. For the “red” markets, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Fla., Oklahoma City and Atlanta were chosen. Show ratings also were examined among all counties across the United States. Nielsen Media Research divides all counties into sizes A (urban, most densely populated and typically more liberal) to D (rural, less populated and typically more conservative), with suburbs in between. All ratings are from Nielsen.

Starting with wide trends, the top 10 shows were highly similar in red and blue markets, rural and urban. “CSI,” “Without a Trace,” “60 Minutes,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “CSI: Miami,” “ER” and other popular favorites showed little fluctuation based on region or population.

By genre, popular police procedurals and broad-appeal reality fare such as “Survivor: Vanuatu” tended to be nonpartisan in their draw, though there were exceptions.

Among reality shows, for example, “The Apprentice” was more popular in urban metro areas than in the most rural areas. Among A counties, it’s the fourth-highest-rated show in prime time. The show’s rank gets progressively lower as the counties get more rural, averaging a rank of 43 among D counties. While the highly ranked “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” performed equally well in urban and rural environments, the show tended to be slightly more favored in red markets than blue markets.

Some Clear Divides

As one might expect, the liberal-skewing politics of “The West Wing” performed best in blue markets. But the division was much sharper when comparing the show by county size. The show averaged a rank of 13 among urban centers, and plummeted to 70 in rural areas. To a lesser extent, the critically lauded bubble-comedy “Arrested Development” also skewed blue and urban.

The racy “Desperate Housewives” was a top five show in every surveyed market, though it performed slightly better in blue markets and firmly better in urban centers.

“There are remarkably few people who take offense at the violence and gore in `CSI’ or occasional nudity in `Survivor’ or `Desperate Housewives,’ but we hear a lot about it,” Mr. Brooks said. “Where you find real differences is in shows that have an overt political bent like `The West Wing’ or programs that are breaking the mold in sex.”

Another clear divide was caused by shows with gay-themed content. “Will & Grace” ranked higher in blue markets and urban centers, going from a 13 in the most populous counties to 50 in the least. Likewise, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” posted its highest numbers among surveyed cities New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago, while barely registering in cities such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Salt Lake City.

While Fox’s “The O.C.” is a soap opera set in conservative Orange County, the program ranked high in blue markets. The show does best among surveyed area Los Angeles (35 ranked, which included Orange County) and worst in Oklahoma City (ranked 126).

As for across-the-board red-market appeal, “Blue Collar TV” handily ranked higher in conservative markets-Orlando, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Atlanta were its top cities among the surveyed, ranking from 75 to 79. In New York (112), Boston (99) and other blue cities, viewers were less interested.

Among Christian-themed prime-time shows such as “Joan of Arcadia” and “7th Heaven,” results were mixed. “7th Heaven” skewed red, but not by a strong margin. “Joan,” a rather dark and edgy show despite its premise, did not show any consistent ideological skewing.