Broadcast Identity

Political Polarization & Audience Self-Sorting in Our Digital Age

Author’s Note: “Broadcast Identity” originally served as my graduate thesis, first submitted to the American University Schools of Communication and Public Affairs in mid-2023. As such, it’s both exceptionally long and formatted slightly differently than the other pieces shared here — consequently, I’ve elected to include a table of contents for your convenience. Please feel free to abandon this page whenever you like; you’ll always be able to come back and resume reading again from wherever you left off.

In This Essay

Imagine: It’s 6:30 p.m., and you’re just returning home from a chaotic and strenuous day at work. As you walk through your front door, you quickly shrug off your bag and coat, leaving your shoes in your wake. If you’ve planned ahead, then maybe you already know what you’ll be having for dinner — or maybe you still need to make that decision and cook or order food for yourself. Either way, it’s 7:30 p.m. before you know it, and you’re finishing dishes in anticipation of collapsing on your couch in front of the television and finally shutting down for the evening. But before you do, there’s one last decision left to make: What are you going to watch?

For many Americans, television shows provide a much-needed escape from the realities of everyday life. They offer us a chance to cry, to laugh, and to connect with characters who feel like old friends. But these shows also mean so much more than that — they’re a reflection of the broader economic, political, and social forces that shape our national popular culture. And, consequently, they often convey implicit messages that help us identify, navigate, and understand the world around us, creating and reinforcing sets of beliefs and values that define how we understand our place in society.

Think about it. If you hit play on “Abbott Elementary,” you’re spending your own personal and uniquely valuable time watching newly-minted teachers at a public elementary school in Philadelphia navigate everything from a lack of funding to racial tension — and the host of other sociopolitical issues that come with those situations. If you watch “Blue Bloods,” on the other hand, you’re watching a multi-generational family of police collectively process their inherited commitment to New York law enforcement (and the trauma caused by the continuation of that legacy). And if you stream Peacock to catch the latest episode of “Yellowstone,” you’re exposed to an entirely different environment — the corrupt world of land ownership and ranchers, within which another multi-generational family struggles to survive despite betrayal, corruption, murder, and more.

In other, more explicit words: If you watch “Abbott Elementary,” you’re thinking (at least subconsciously) about classism, racism, and the public school systems that serve so many American youth across the nation. If you watch “Blue Bloods,” you’re learning that the police force is driven by hardworking family men just doing their best to keep their communities safe. If you watch “Yellowstone,” you’re suddenly transported to a world of rugged individualism where competence, independence, and survival skills are prized above all else. How could three different people, each watching one of these shows, ever hope to come to the same conclusions about the world they live in?

It's no secret that the content we consume has the power to guide and shape our attitudes and beliefs about the world around us. And while different shows will always appeal to different people across classes, ethnicities, races, and any other number of personal identities, we should be wary of the consequences of that fragmentation. If we exclusively consume media that confirms our existing conclusions and perceptions, we miss out on important ideas and perspectives — and make it exponentially harder for ourselves to engage with those who see our global community in a different light.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll define the partisan elements present in different popular television shows, investigate why Americans select certain shows over others, and explore the possible ramifications of this ever-increasing fragmentation and separation for our national political landscape. In doing so, I will shed light on the complex and ever-changing landscape of American popular culture, and hopefully encourage a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion about the role that our entertainment choices can play (even indirectly) in our civic sphere.

I set out on my anthropological expedition with confidence, convinced that I already knew enough about the respective worlds of “Abbott Elementary,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Yellowstone” to reach some profound conclusion about the partisan nature of our media landscape. But just a few episodes into the first season of the first show on my list, I came to a more obvious and fundamental realization — it’s almost impossible to effectively compare and contrast anything unless you know what you’re looking for and how you’ll measure it. And in this case, that process of delineation began with a simple question: How do we know which shows are partisan and, more importantly, how can we observe the ways in which that partisan bias manifests in them?

Luckily, social scientist and University of Pittsburgh Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Nick Rogers set out to answer this exact question just last year, employing a set of seven basic questions about different elements of broader narrative content (referred to as “story features”) to definitively place several different television shows along an ideological scale.1 These queries are as follows:

  • Is the show's style more novel, or more conventional?

  • Are the show's protagonists socially marginalized, or are they in positions of authority?

  • Is the show morally ambiguous, or is there a clear depiction of good vs. bad?

  • Do plotlines stretch across episodes, or is there tidy resolution?

  • How diverse is the show's primary cast?

  • Are the characters' risks mainly social/psychological, or are they in physical danger? 

  • Are there profane elements, or is the show family-friendly?

It’s these questions that will guide my content analysis, albeit in a slightly different context than their initial creation; whereas Rogers had a team of six research assistants use this system to evaluate a fairly sweeping set of programs, I will take a somewhat more relaxed approach in my own consideration of our selected shows. In other words, rather than convert these observations into a precise quantitative scale, I’ll instead aggregate them into an intentionally casual and altogether more informal political spectrum — which, combined with several ethnographic interviews referenced throughout this examination, should help me better understand the popular entertainment media landscape as it exists today (both broadly and holistically). I’ve created a quick visualization of this spectrum for clarity:

It also feels worth noting, before I begin the careful inspection of our three selected case studies, that story features only tell us about the ideological bias present in these shows themselves. If this scope is broadened outside the confines of these episodic boundaries, it becomes clear relatively quickly that there are other considerations that warrant attention — considerations like the critical reception of these shows upon launch, the actual demographics of each program’s audience, and the channels and/or platforms on which each show airs and streams. I will do my best to consider these elements alongside narrative content, both in the following analyses themselves and in the pages that follow.

The Liberal Case: “Abbott Elementary”

It seems like everyone’s talking about “Abbott Elementary” these days. And that attention has only grown since the sitcom won this year’s Best Comedy Series at the 80th Golden Globe Awards, joining the likes of past winners “Schitt’s Creek,” “The Kominsky Method,” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”2 But in case you’re not familiar with the show, a quick summary of its premise: “Abbott Elementary” follows a cadre of Philadelphia public school teachers, new and old, navigating the struggles of serving their predominantly Black community despite a chronic lack of funds and general mismanagement. In longstanding workplace comedy tradition, the show is presented through the lens of a relatively unacknowledged film crew recording for an unspecified documentary, and also chronicles several social and romantic relationships in addition to its professional focus.

If you have a hunch about partisan values present in “Abbott Elementary” after reading that brief two-sentence description of the show, chances are you’re probably on the right track. I — as ever, dedicated to my craft — am now fully caught up with the series, and have evaluated it accordingly per my seven-question system.




Is the show's style more novel, or more conventional?

“Abbott Elementary” is presented in a traditional style, familiar to anyone who’s watched “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” or any number of other workplace comedies.


Are the show's protagonists socially marginalized, or are they in positions of authority? 

Janine, Gregory, Jacob, and their colleagues are in positions of authority only within school walls. In their broader world, they lack any real power (or at least are not afforded any by their social status), and that’s the dynamic that sets up the show’s conflict.


Is the show morally ambiguous, or is there a clear depiction of good vs. bad?

While it’s obvious to viewers which characters are supposed to elicit support and which are intended to serve as villains, they are almost all shown to be fairly nuanced individuals.


Do plotlines stretch across episodes, or is there tidy resolution?

Plotlines definitely stretch across episodes, though there are also serialized pieces of content that wrap neatly at the end of each episode.

Somewhat Liberal

How diverse is the show's primary cast?

The show’s primary cast is predominantly Black, but includes diverse supporting characters.


Are the characters' risks mainly social/psychological, or are they in physical danger? 

All risks shown in “Abbott Elementary” are entirely social/psychological.


Are there profane elements, or is the show family-friendly?

It seems like the show is relatively family-friendly, though there are occasional profane references and the use of explicit language.

Somewhat Conservative


It will come as no surprise to anyone that aggregating the quantifiable story features in “Abbott Elementary” suggests that the show does, in fact, include narrative content that appeals primarily to liberal values. And I’m far from the only one noticing — while the series may not be as explicitly political as many of its competitors, there’s no mistaking its left-leaning portrayal of the world we live in. “The real villain is the system itself,” Politico’s Joanna Weiss wrote in 2022, “A social order that allows an inner-city school to languish, because it lacks the political clout to get attention…What’s really being skewered is the middle- and upper-class audience that tends to watch quality television like “Abbott Elementary,” a liberal establishment that gives lip service to supporting underprivileged populations but in actuality has the luxury of helping only selectively, or ignoring the problem completely.”3

Nowhere in the show is this interpretation of racial dynamics presented more clearly than in actor Chris Perfetti’s delivery of his designated character; sixth grade history teacher Jacob Hill. Jacob — colloquially referred to by his class as “Mr. C,” a letter that the dismayed character eventually uncovers stands for “corny” — regularly fails to understand jokes between his Black colleagues, is constantly struggling to reconcile his own worldview with that of his students, and generally plays the part of the well-meaning but often misguided white ally.4 While inaugurating a podcasting club at the school, for instance, Jacob attempts to force his volunteers into adopting an intensely structured, research-heavy style, only acceding to his students’ preferred casual, more dynamic approach when they threaten to quit.5 It’s this lack of cultural racial understanding that propels Jacob’s growth as an individual and a teacher throughout each episode; it’s also a theme that relies on a pre-existing appreciation for the importance of cultural relativism in empowering historically marginalized communities to create impact with its audience. And that’s an undeniably liberal perspective of the world.

Unfortunately, it’s often exceedingly difficult to find reliable data on the ideological or partisan breakdown of the audience of any given television show (a problem that will be discussed further at the conclusion of this section). I can determine, however, that Americans who watch “Abbott Elementary” air live on ABC or stream it on Hulu are of all different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities, and trend definitively younger (though females aged 35 or over are still responsible for a healthy 62 percent of the show’s live broadcast audience).6 And those demographics, while not entirely conclusive, are clearly and evidently heavily correlated with those of recent Democratic voters.7

It’s also worth noting that Hulu users themselves are often demographically very similar to Democratic voters. 2022 numbers show that just over half of all platform subscribers are female, are split primarily between Millenials (born between between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996), and earn less than $50,000 a year.8

The Conservative Case: “Blue Bloods”

“Blue Bloods” first aired in September 2010, and it’s been an American classic ever since. Recently renewed for a 14th season on CBS, the series follows a multigenerational family of law enforcement professionals as they navigate the criminal underworld of New York City. Helmed by Police Commissioner Frank Reagan (brought to life by Hollywood superstar Tom Selleck), the Reagan family includes a seasoned detective and Iraqi war veteran, an assistant district attorney, and a rookie cop.

Again, that description alone may be enough to give you at least initial suspicions about the show’s inherent political bias. And, again, you’re probably right. While I confess I have not yet made my way through all 250-plus episodes, I did watch well into the second season so I could provide this analysis, and I feel confident in my assessment.




Is the show's style more novel, or more conventional?

“Blue Bloods” follows a traditional police procedural drama format.


Are the show's protagonists socially marginalized, or are they in positions of authority? 

Every single member of the Reagan family is in a clear position of authority, whether as New York City Police Commission, Assistant District Attorney, detective, or beat cop.


Is the show morally ambiguous, or is there a clear depiction of good vs. bad?

While characters sometimes play off each other as ideological foils, it’s always the women espousing progressive views, and they always concede by the end of each episode. Moreover, it’s hard to ignore the basic “cops-versus-criminals” foundation of the show.


Do plotlines stretch across episodes, or is there tidy resolution?

With the exception of occasional longer-term plotlines, each episode typically includes one case that is ultimately neatly wrapped up within the hour.


How diverse is the show's primary cast?

Virtually every protagonist or key character in “Blue Bloods” is white, while criminals are often people of color.


Are the characters' risks mainly social/psychological, or are they in physical danger? 

It goes almost without saying that physical danger is a key component of this show.


Are there profane elements, or is the show family-friendly?

As a police procedural drama, “Blue Bloods” involves a decent amount of profanity (though it almost always occurs outside of the internal Reagan family dynamic).

Somewhat Liberal


If you’re familiar with the genre, then you know that police procedural dramas — by their very nature — position members of law enforcement as morally righteous heroes on a campaign to save their city from the nefarious evildoers that wish it harm. “Blue Bloods” takes this theme to new heights, showing exactly how these heroes operate on the streets and within our legal system. And that makes it an inherently conservative show, as well as one committed to sermonizing right-leaning, traditional values to its audience — which, as one would expect, is radically different demographically than that of “Abbott Elementary.”

When its first season aired over a decade ago, the average “Blue Bloods” audience member was 60.4 years of age.9 As of two years ago, that needle hadn’t moved much; just over six million people watched the season 13 return of the show the day it aired, but not many of those fell in the target demographic range of people aged 18 to 49.10 I couldn’t find much publicly available information describing the ethnic or racial backgrounds of “Blue Bloods” viewers, unfortunately, but the age of its audience alone suggests that it probably attracts a conservative audience.

The show’s critical reception seems to indicate a similar public understanding of the situation, as well. In 2014, journalist Laura Hudson (now culture editor at The Verge) published a scathing review of the series, writing that “Despite how often the show touches on thorny political and social problems, it tends to be far more interested in reassurances than revelations.”11

Hudson’s observations feel both apt and well-phrased, and parallel my own understanding of the series. It’s clear that the Reagan family is supposed to be read charitably, as a brood of noble, well-intentioned champions of justice — but it’s equally clear (at least to those watching with a critical eye) that this posturing is expedited by the household’s lack of true confrontation with the ingrained, systemic issues that have a meaningful impact on the lives of real people. From espousing an idealized version of color blindness all-too-similar to the contemporary “all lives matter” movement to saying grace before Sunday dinners, the Reagans routinely manage to resolve these tensions with seemingly nothing but simple faith and the occasional legal loophole.12 Moreover, victims of pervasive structural prejudice are treated as functionally independent actors who suffer because of various unlucky run-ins with a small cohort of corrupted civil servants, rather than as casualties of broader bigotry or a discriminatory government.

And if allowing the Reagans to escape squaring up to their own perpetuation of a rigged or unfair system is bad, the show’s contextual depiction of marginalized peoples and minorities is worse. As noted in the table presented earlier in this analysis, a disproportionately high percentage of criminals chased and caught throughout “Blue Bloods” is comprised of people of color; beyond this explicit racial coding, many of the other characters of color are shown orchestrating artificial outrage against law enforcement in the interest of self-aggrandizement or preservation. It goes almost without saying that this is an issue — it reassures readers (both consciously and subconsciously) that while phenomena like police brutality are unarguably problematic, they’re not actually that widespread beyond these communities’ own desire to publicly present them as such. In other words, these types of characterizations give viewers permission to trust their local authorities again, and to disengage with otherwise urgent social justice movements.

Ultimately, “Blue Bloods” is an undeniably conservative program, designed to assuage viewers nervous about their own place in the world and to restore faith in our broader system of government and justice that is so often under attack.

The Wild Card Case: “Yellowstone”

If you correctly guessed the partisan slant of our two previous shows, congratulations. You’re batting a thousand. But now comes the true challenge: “Yellowstone.”

Created by American filmmaker Taylor Sheridan, “Yellowstone” is a gripping TV drama that has captivated audiences with breathtaking Montana scenery, complex characters, and thrilling plotlines. It revolves around the Dutton family, owners of the largest contiguous United States, and the family dynamics, power struggles, and societal conflicts that threaten their hold on the greater Bozeman metropolitan area — including greed-driven land developers and the out-for-revenge leadership of a nearby indigenous reservation.

Where “Abbott Elementary” and “Blue Bloods” wear their bias on their sleeves, “Yellowstone” is an entirely different beast altogether. Subtly nuanced, this modern Western distances itself from our traditional political dichotomy in favor of an exponentially more independent, individualistic, and rugged worldview. And that leaves room to showcase values from across the political spectrum, rather than forced adherence to a single ideology.




Is the show's style more novel, or more conventional?

“Yellowstone” is a fairly conventional, long-form television program.


Are the show's protagonists socially marginalized, or are they in positions of authority? 

The Duttons are an incredibly powerful multigenerational family of ranchers, Dan Jenkins is a wealthy developer, and even the normally-marginalized indigenous characters — like Thomas Rainwater — have authority over their reservation. Still, there are a few socially marginalized characters (like Jimmy Hurdstram, Monica Dutton, and even Kayce Dutton to some extent).

Somewhat Conservative

Is the show morally ambiguous, or is there a clear depiction of good vs. bad?

While the Dutton family are unarguable protagonists, they are in no way presented as morally righteous characters — I struggle to think of anyone in the show that falls unquestionably in either a “hero” or “villain” category.


Do plotlines stretch across episodes, or is there tidy resolution?

“Yellowstone” plotlines stretch not only across episodes, but seasons.


How diverse is the show's primary cast?

The “Yellowstone” cast is not especially diverse, but does include decent representation for the communities indigenous to and present in the environment in which the entire show takes place.

Somewhat Conservative

Are the characters' risks mainly social/psychological, or are they in physical danger? 

Virtually every single character in this show is in physical danger of some kind, while only a few are forced to contend with psychological or social trauma.


Are there profane elements, or is the show family-friendly?

It’s clear from the opening scene of the first episode (in which John Dutton calmly kills a dismembered horse after a suspicious crash on the road) that this is not a show for children.



You heard it here first, folks: “Yellowstone” is a politically communal show, catering to and representing values associated with both sides of the American political spectrum. Surprised?

It may seem at first blush as if “Yellowstone” is a series primarily intended for those enamored with the weather-beaten, wild West and the uncompromising lifestyles of those who choose to settle there. But while the show includes its fair share of references to cowboys and country music, it shies away from caricature, instead choosing to present an acutely nuanced depiction of our uniquely American life. The program’s cautious approach to political and social issues, coupled with its exploration of the conflicts between government, land developers, and ranchers, allows viewers from across the political spectrum to find points of resonance. Consider the series’ critique of corporate greed and exploitation, or its portrayal of environmental conservation and indigenous land rights — these are themes that align with liberal concerns around climate change and racial justice. Simultaneously, however, the Dutton family’s fight to protect their land, property rights, and traditional way of life may resonate with conservatives who prioritize individualism, self-sufficiency, and resistance against government intervention — as does the theme of family loyalty that is obviously and clearly present in every single episode.

“Yellowstone” bridges political divides to appeal to a wide audience, drawing both liberal and conservative viewers through its complex and multi-layered portrayal of contemporary issues in the American West. From John Dutton’s wry, populist eschewing of performative politics to long-winded monologues about revenge against a nation of oppressors delivered by Chief Thomas Rainwater, this is a show that defies attempts to neatly place it in a partisan box — no matter how hard critics may try.13

Entertainment Industry Evolution and Consumer Choice

Until the 1980s, there were only three major traditional commercial broadcast television networks in the United States: the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), CBS (formerly known as the Columbia Broadcasting System), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Today, three decades later, we have an almost impossible number of cable and public channels to choose from, as well as streaming platform originals, web series, and an entire world of user-generated content. We live in an era of unprecedented choice — and now we’re all collectively suffering the consequences.

If I want to watch “Abbott Elementary,” for instance, I can wait for a live episode to air on ABC, or I can stream it on Hulu (if I’m a subscriber). If I want to watch “Blue Bloods,” I can similarly tune in live on CBS, or check it out on Hulu. If I want to watch “Yellowstone” live, I need to have a membership with the Paramount Network, or I can watch older seasons on other platforms like Peacock. Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+, HBOMax, Netflix — the list of entertainment options goes on.

At any given moment, I have an almost excessive number of established streaming services that I can subscribe to and engage with at the click of a button or the touch of a screen, all offering different programs, series, and shows. And that means I can always consume the content that I want to, without ever breaking the safety of my own personal media comfort zone. But how did we get here? How might this guarantee of choice change the way I pick shows to watch, and how do those choices in turn shape my own understanding of the world I live in?

We’ll get there. I promise. Read on, dear reader. Read on.

Audience Fragmentation and Politicultural Self-Sorting

In conducting research for this study, I spoke with several experts and practitioners to enhance my understanding of our newly politicized popular culture landscape. And while each conversation led to new insight and reflection, one theme rang true throughout each and every exchange I had: a remarkable paucity of reliable data defining the issue.

“It’s surprisingly difficult to get one’s hands on data showing the ideological breakdown of audiences,” Rogers told me earlier this year. “No one seems to have any actual data on that.”14

Of course, that’s not to say that researchers can’t still draw conclusions about the atomization of our entertainment media landscape beyond their instinctive suspicions. In fact, a handful of academics have successfully quantified our collective predisposition to politicultural sorting, finding significant evidence of an increasing disparity in the shows watched in Democratic and Republican markets, respectively.15 And, of course, it’s also possible to draw correlations between the audience demographic data we do have and publicly available information about the broader demographics of our two major political parties (as I attempted to do earlier in this same study).

Rogers sees this disunion as a byproduct of the creation of what political scientist Lilliana Mason calls the “mega-identity”: the stacking of our formerly layered-yet-separate identities into one self-affirming umbrella persona that defines our existence.16 “Previously, we all got along because of these multiple, different identities — you know, I may not share a racial identity with you, but maybe I share a Christian identity with you and we can connect that way,” said Rogers. “But more and more, these identities are being stacked such that if I don’t share a racial identity with you, then I very likely don’t share a religious identity with you, or a political identity, or a geographic identity — and we likely don’t watch the same TV shows.”17

In other words, our choice of entertainment is now wrapped up in our personal ideologies and values in an entirely unprecedented way. And if that sounds like a problem to you, it’s because it is. It’s no secret that this splintering of our digital ecosystem has enormous consequences for our ability to engage, interact, and understand the world around us; studies show that the recommendation-based streaming platforms that dominate our entertainment landscape can isolate users, blur the boundaries between cultural touchpoints and personalized content, and even prey on our desire to view material that mirrors and reaffirms our own lived experiences.18 In other words, services like Netflix have the power to fundamentally distort our perceptions of the world around us by showing us what we want to see, even while they simultaneously cut us off from our broader local and national communities at large.

But more on that later. For now, the key thing to remember is that Democrats and Republicans no longer consume the same entertainment content, primarily because they simply don’t have to. And so the question is: How did this partisan media landscape come to fruition? Or, perhaps more accurately, who created this partisan media?

Hollywood Bias: Inside and Out

It would take a truly Herculean effort to definitively chronicle and map our national embrace of the mega-identity; I could write an entire book on the coalescence of our different selves into the emotionally-charged, political characters we all are today. Since I’m limited to these pages, however, I think it makes sense to instead question the obvious gatekeepers to entertainment content creation: “Hollywood” (a phrase used here as shorthand for the entertainment media industry at large) itself.

And, at least after speaking with Rogers, that instinct appears correct. “My guess is that [partisan appeal] has historically been largely accidental,” he told me. “Content creators are thinking of it in terms of other demographics. But more and more as we see people’s stacked identities, if someone is rural and older, then it’s a good bet that they are also politically conservative. If you know that a viewer is more affluent, more educated, and more urban, it’s an almost certain bet that they are also politically liberal. So it is changing, and I think content creators are probably becoming more inclined to think about these potential audiences along political lines.”19

Ann Reidy, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Civic Health Project, gave me a decidedly more definitive perspective on the industry. “There’s no doubt that Hollywood is itself deeply polarized,” she told me, before recounting a recent interaction she had with the head writer of a popular late-night comedy television show.20

In each of their observations, Rogers and Reidy reveal a hard truth about the entertainment industry: despite ever-present and often deserved criticism around representation, it’s a fundamentally political and progressive institution. As much as that may sound like a Republican talking point, it’s true; liberal bias  in the industry is the reason conservatives are increasingly turning to their own partisan soup to nuts film studios and production companies to create content that better aligns with their ideologies.21

And Hollywood isn’t the only environment fueled by structural partiality. The broader news media is also to blame for our wildly radicalized perceptions of the entertainment industry. “Yellowstone” is a great example of this — while analysis of the show’s narrative content proves that the program is a functionally communal piece of entertainment, journalists are obsessed with defining it in our partisan landscape. “It’s one of those rare examples of content that is spanning the partisan divide,” Reidy said, “And I think that messes with critics’ minds, because they want to see it as “you’re either on that side or this side,” sending messages that resonate with either conservatives or liberals, but not both. I think it says more about the class of commentators…and their inability to see beyond black and white than anything else.”22

Ultimately, Hollywood and the news media are adding fuel to the already-raging fire, cashing in on our contemporary, emotionally political senses of self to ensure that we remain engaged with their products regardless of the consequences for our own collective cultural wellbeing. It may be an exaggeration to say that the television shows that we watch are the root of polarization in this country, but I do feel comfortable saying on the record that they rarely help the issue.

A Partisan Entertainment Media Landscape: Should We Be Worried?

Still with me? Great. Let’s take a quick moment to recap. Since embarking on this journey, I have established that “Abbott Elementary” caters to liberals, that “Blue Bloods” resonates with conservatives, and that “Yellowstone” effectively bridges that divide. I have also determined that audiences are broadly segregating themselves along partisan lines (beyond these three case studies) as both our digital media ecosystem compartmentalizes and our formerly multifaceted identities layer and stack into new, umbrella mega-identities. And, lastly, I have found that the entertainment and journalism industries are increasingly learning to lean into this phenomenon, exacerbating political polarization through the expression of inherent institutional bias and intentionally pitting Americans against each other in some kind of perverted “left versus right” showdown.

If knowing all of that makes you want to turn Netflix off and go outside to bask in the sun and touch grass, I get it. It’s made me reconsider my own relationship with the content I choose to spend time with on a daily basis. But, unfortunately, I’m not done yet. Because no matter how clear the answers may seem, there’s still a critically important pair of final questions that remain: Does it actually matter that we’re not all watching the same shows anymore? And if it does, how do we find our way back to each other again?

Yes, Probably, Almost Definitely

As I mentioned just a few subheadings ago, it seems relatively safe to conclude that this defined, accelerated politicultural sorting is a problem for our collective national political culture. “It’s not just the fact that we can’t connect over television anymore,” Rogers told me. “It’s the fact that the fact that we can’t connect over television anymore also tells me I probably can’t connect with you politically or religiously or in any other way. Take “Abbott Elementary.” It’s a very racially diverse show that features a lot of strong Black characters. And so if I like that show and you don’t, then immediately I start to wonder, well, what is it about your worldview that makes you avoid “Abbott Elementary?” Are you racist?”23

Rogers believes those snap judgments cause more harm than good, and not just in the context of contemporary polarization. In fact, he shared, this is the same behavior witnessed time and time again preceding large-scale mass atrocities. “To the extent that we don’t have those points of connection anymore, we start looking more and more alien to each other,” Rogers said. “And when we start looking more alien to each other, it becomes easy to dehumanize. And dehumanization is at the base of so many atrocities — when we start identifying a cultural opponent, and we start to convince ourselves that they are less human than us, that’s when we see civil war, and genocide.”24

In certain cases, the effects of these entertainment choices can even jump off the screen and into the real world in the short-term. Seasoned journalist Mary Ann Akers found this out for herself just a few years ago while visiting a friend in Luray, Virginia.25 Learning from a neighbor that former United States representative and “Dukes of Hazzard” star Ben Jones had organized an event featuring every single living member of the show’s cast — and the Confederate flag — Akers decided to attend. And so, just weeks before white supremacists would take to the streets in Charlottesville, she got in her car and made her way to “Cooter’s Last Stand.”

“I just had chills up and down my spine,” Akers shared with me. “There wasn’t anything that would cause violence — there weren’t any monuments being removed or anything — but the whole thing felt so bizarre and surreal. And they had this cheesy wrestling match; the pro-Hillary wrestler versus the conservative wrestler…and the liberal wrestler was taking a Confederate flag and putting it in a pillowcase and stomping on it, and the crowd was booing him and it was just wild. Everyone was in support of the conservative wrestler.”26

It’s clear that this audience fragmentation in the American entertainment media ecosystem is an enormous problem for our collective national political culture on several levels. As Akers’ story makes clear, television programs serve as basic cultural touchstones that help us interpret our contemporary lives and world — and that means they can also easily become rallying points for all sorts of “us versus them” rhetoric. As we navigate the challenges of a polarized digital media landscape, it is imperative that we recognize the importance of fostering a sense of community and shared understanding to promote a more socially cohesive and inclusive society.

Watching Our Way Out

If the defined problem at hand is that we’re segregating ourselves into niche digital media bubbles, then the obvious solution is for us to consciously and intentionally break back out of our own personal comfort zones. But research suggests it may not be that simple, indicating that when people are exposed to opposing viewpoints online, they actually become more entrenched in their own political ideology and partisanship.

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground between self-preserved entertainment isolation and forced, extreme discomfort. In the past, academics have suggested that no matter how liberal a television show’s narrative content may be, certain formats or genres — like sitcoms — are inherently restricted by a de facto hierarchy of values that make it functionally impossible to construct a truly progressive show.27 Now, Reidy, Rogers, and their colleagues are challenging that notion, pointing out both that there are in fact many, many examples of communal entertainment programs and that this material is often wildly successful.

“There’s an argument that most of the content that performs the best tends to be politically communal,” Rogers said. “The most-viewed programs are things like “Jeopardy!” or “Wheel of Fortune” or Monday night football, and so we have not just a civic health interest, but film and television studios have a financial interest in making things that are politically communal.”28

It’s this concept that Reidy has committed to through her work with both Bridge Entertainment Labs and the Civic Health Project. These organizations exist to accelerate and incubate this type of communal content, in the hopes of restoring some common ground nationally. “The ultimate goal is to find ways to create more content that has crossover appeal and that can create these shared cultural spaces,” Reidy told me. “But even if there’s a show that’s just never going to appeal to conservatives…there’s a lot that can be done to shift in-group and out-group dynamics just within that particular demographic. So it’s not just about looking to accelerate crossover content; we’re also looking at meeting audiences where they are.”29

If there’s a way out of this mess we’ve found ourselves in, at least as far as our entertainment ecosystem is concerned, this is it. Maybe if we all watched more shows like “Yellowstone,” we’d find new ways to communicate — even if it’s just over the watercooler at work. 

Sadly, this feels like an uphill battle. “I think there’s a fundamentally binary way of looking at this,” Reidy says, “Which is that you’re either a champion of social justice, or you’re about social cohesion. And a lot of people struggle to see how those approaches could be compatible…And anything that smacks of a departure from social justice work is met with great suspicion. So part of nudging the industry to understand its role in this is speaking in their language, and speaking to the predominant concerns that are driving their decisions. We’re not telling anyone to prioritize civility over calls for justice.”30

If you’re still reading this, you have my utmost appreciation and thanks. I know it’s a long study. But it’s long because it’s important, and sometimes there’s no way to make a point as desperately urgent as I feel this one is without acceding to verbosity.

I began this piece with the analysis of three carefully-selected shows — “Abbott Elementary,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Yellowstone” — in the hopes that a review of their narrative content may shed new light on our increasingly political and polarized entertainment media landscape. I then stepped back from the internal features of these programs to explore the rapid splintering of these audiences along partisan lines, finding that it coincides with both a new era of consumer choice and the creation of the mega-identity. Empowered by that knowledge, I subsequently questioned the structural bias present in both Hollywood and the journalists covering it before examining the possible consequences of this phenomenon and the ways in which we may come together once again to restore even a modicum of common ground.

I won’t pretend that there’s any kind of magical salve that will cure all that ails us as Americans. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and if finding new (and old) ways to unite us is the goal, then creating communal content that we can all enjoy may in fact be the answer.

“Entertainment is like the surround sound in any society,” Reidy told me, just before we went our separate ways. “We need to change the surround sound that we're all taking in on a daily basis if we want to shift social norms and behaviors.”31

1  Rogers, “Shared Screens: Scripted Television’s Communal Space in a Polarized Nation - Bridge Entertainment Labs.”

2  Piña, “’Abbott Elementary’ Wins Best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes, Marking the First Network Win in Nine Years.”

3  Weiss, “Opinion | Political TV Shows Have Never Been Worse. Sitcoms Are the Exception.”

4  “Abbott Elementary.”

5  “Read-a-Thon.”

6  “Rapid Insights: Abbott Elementary’s Warm Humor Makes the Grade – Vault AI.”

7  Frey, “Midterm Exit Polls Show That Young Voters Drove Democratic Resistance to the ‘Red Wave.’”

8  “Hulu Statistics 2022 | 99firms.”

9  Rose, “The Oldest Shows On TV, From ‘Blue Bloods’ To ‘Dancing With The Stars.’”

10  Haring, “Friday Ratings: ‘Blue Bloods’ Hits Season-Best Viewership Numbers, Six-Way Tie In Demos.”

11  Hudson, “The CBS Series That Reinforces America’s Prejudices About Police and Black People.”

12  “Black and Blue.”

13  Poniewozik, “‘Yellowstone’ Speaks the Language of Culture War.”

14  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

15  Fioroni et al., “Political Sorting in U.S. Entertainment Media.”

16  Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.

17  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

18  Brincker, “Disoriented and Alone in the ‘Experience Machine’ – On Netflix, Shared World Deceptions and the Consequences of Deepening Algorithmic Personalization.”

19  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

20  Ann Reidy, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

21  Bernstein, “Can Nashville Be Hollywood for Conservatives?”

22  Ann Reidy, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

23  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

24  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

25  Akers, “How a Goofy Southern Sitcom Became the Vanguard of the Neo-Confederacy.”

26  Mary Ann Akers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

27  Carvalho, Leite, and Da Cunha Nichele, “One Day at a Time: The Political Limits of the Domestic Sitcom.”

28  Nick Rogers, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

29  Ann Reidy, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

30  Ann Reidy, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

31  Ann Reidy, interview by Nicholas Shereikis.

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