Because of the press coverage my new book, Primetime Propaganda, is getting, many people are asking whether there’s truly any impact to entertaining TV. If television is such a powerful medium, they wonder, how was Ronald Reagan elected? George H.W. Bush? George W. Bush? How could we have had the Republican Revolution of 1994, or the Tea Party resurgence of 2010?
The answer, of course, is that television has shifted our values least with regard to big government, and most with regard to social values. This makes perfect sense, since television is specifically designed to manipulate you emotionally by exploiting interpersonal feelings – and playing on interpersonal feelings is a tactic the left has long used to establish its dominance with regard to social issues.
Take, for example, the issue of same sex marriage, which has become a dividing line not just in Hollywood, but across America politically. The left is fond of asking whether you can be anti-same sex marriage if you have a gay relative or friend. The argument seems to be that if you are personally close to someone who has sex with members of the same gender, you cannot oppose their behavior or, more appropriately, the enshrinement of their behavior in law. There is no real logic to this argument, of course – but it is tremendously effective. Most of us don’t want to seem unsympathetic, particularly to those we care about – we don’t want to seem intolerant and cold-hearted.
Television makes this same argument in a unique way. Instead of playing on your current friends and family, television creates a group of friends for you. The whole goal of television writers is to create a set of characters who are likable, witty, funny, enjoyable to hang around with. That’s how they draw you in, week after week. The truth is that we actually spend more time with television characters we like than our own family members; according to Nielsen, the television is on an average of 6 hours, 47 minutes each day. Each week, the average child watches 1,680 minutes of television – over the year, that’s 1,456 hours of television.
Then, once you’re hooked on a character, they have that character pursue activities and lifestyle choices with which you disagree. Murphy Brown didn’t start off as a loud and proud unwed mother – she did that after you’d bought in. Neither did Rachel Green from Friends. Even Ellen didn’t start off as a lesbian in her own sitcom.
With regard to gay characters, the story is a little different – the characters usually do start off as gay (with the exception of Ellen), and they’re usually the nicest, most wonderful people on the show. When you watched Friends and saw a lesbian wedding during the first season, know that co-creator Marta Kauffman intended it as a way of propagandizing you. When you watch Glee and see Kurt acting with all the personal honor of the Pope, know that show creator Ryan Murphy, who happens to be gay, is yanking your chain. When you see the gay neighbors on Wisteria Lane, understand that Marc Cherry, who is also gay, put the neighbors in the show for the specific purpose, he told me, of making “it’s own political statement which was ‘see, you can have gay neighbors, they can be perfectly fine, they can fit in with the rest of the folks, and it doesn’t change anything. And you kind of hope that you are preparing the way, planting little seeds in the minds of people who sometime over the next few years are going to have gay neighbors buy a house on their street. And for me, that’s the most effective political message is that its not particularly aggressive.” It’s not that tolerance for gays and lesbians is a bad message – precisely the opposite. But Hollywood’s goal in making homosexuality ubiquitous on television is to create a gay friend and neighbor for everyone, so that they can then make the most effective argument on behalf of gay marriage.
That is the effect of television, and it is clearly evident in Americans’ view of issues like gay marriage. This week, a poll of Americans showed something absolutely stunning: a full 35 percent of Americans believe that more than one in four Americans is gay; a majority, 52 percent, think that over 20 percent are gay; and a full 78 percent believe that at least ten percent of Americans are gay. The real statistic: somewhere around two percent of Americans are gay. There is only one place in American life that the one in four figure or one in five figure is absolutely accurate: on television, where gay characters pervade virtually every show. The younger Americans are, the more likely they are to believe that there is an elevated population of gays; the poorer and less educated they are, the more likely they are to believe the skewed statistics. Not coincidentally, those who are young, poor, and uneducated tend to be the largest consumers of television.
There is a reason that Americans have begun to accept same sex marriage as a fate accompli – and that even many conservatives seem to shy away from defense of traditional marriage. It’s because we’ve been taught by the entertainment we consume that to oppose same sex marriage is to be a bigot, to hate Will of Will & Grace or Kurt of Glee.
This is just one example of how the left has impacted the popular culture, of course. But they’ve done the same with unwed motherhood, gay adoption, absentee fatherhood (or irrelevance of fathers altogether), gun control, immigration, teen sexuality, environmentalism, and religion. They always take the liberal stand, and they use our own emotions to manipulate us. Conservatives, meanwhile, stand by and claim the moral high ground by stating that we’re “reasonable” while our opponents are “emotional.” Even if we’re right, we lose. The fact is that most decisions we make in our life are emotionally driven: getting married, having kids, shifting jobs, moving, even buying a house. Emotions govern us. Television manipulates those emotions. Until we begin getting involved in this powerful mode of communication, we are bound to continue losing the political fight overall, no matter how many Republicans we elect.
Ben Shapiro is an attorney and writer and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, and author of the upcoming book “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How The Left Took Over Your TV” from Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.