Lopez: So should conservatives want to transform lives through TV as liberals have?
Shapiro: Absolutely. I’m all for strident debate in the television space. Liberals aren’t going to start holding themselves back in terms of their politics; conservatives shouldn’t have to do so either. Either the liberals stop using entertainment to propagandize, or conservatives should get into this space. What we can’t do is leave the space unoccupied.
Beyond that, however, conservatives have to recognize that liberals have been successful in learning to message using subtlety — they focus on great plot and character first, and then allow their internal political monologues to shine through (except for Aaron Sorkin, for whom every character is an avatar of Aaron Sorkin). Conservatives in this space, by contrast, have focused on message first and character second. That’s a crucial mistake. The whole point of using entertainment for messaging is that you allow people to know and love your characters, and through those characters, your politics. Conservatives have been going at it directly backward, focusing on the characters’ politics rather than their motivations qua characters.
Could your book easily been titled: “Primetime Propaganda: Why Conservatives Have Made Hollywood Worse”? You’re not a fan of disengagement.
Shapiro: I think disengagement is the worst thing we can do on any level. We’ve basically forfeited the most powerful tool of mass communication in human history to the Left, because we prefer to think about “serious” topics. There’s only one problem with that: It fails.
Conservatives have a basic ideological flaw when it comes to politics: We think people think with their heads. For a huge swath of people, they don’t — they think with their hearts. Entertainment changes hearts, and by doing so, changes minds. By abandoning the battlefield for American culture and sitting at a distance playing Whac-A-Mole (hey, look, Glee is bad! hey, look, Skins is bad!), we actually allow liberals to control the entire structure — by focusing on the outliers, we legitimize the shows that aren’t outliers, even if they’re influential and problematic.
Lopez: What’s the most important well-kept secret about the TV industry?
Shapiro: The best-kept secret is that the TV industry does not cater to the American public. For years, liberals in the television industry have silenced conservatives by stating, plausibly, that if you don’t like it, you can just turn the channel, that the American public’s desire for more liberal content is what drives liberal content. There’s only one problem: It’s simply untrue. The same small cadre of people controls the vast majority of programming on television. What’s more, they program not to the market but to their own ends, as they admitted to me.
So how do they get away with it? By lying to advertisers. The American people actually like more conservative programming — the Hollywood Reporter has studied the programs conservatives like, and by and large, they’re more popular than the programs liberals like. Many of these shows are heavily favored by older audiences, particularly NCIS, Big Bang Theory, The Amazing Race, etc. In fact, I’m not sure anybody under the age of 50 has ever seen these shows. But despite their huge audiences, these aren’t the shows that advertisers buy into. Instead, they buy into shows like Glee ($47 per thousand viewers) rather than shows like The Good Wife (less than half that sum).
That’s because TV executives have told advertisers for decades that only young audiences matter. There is little or no evidence to this effect. In fact, as top executives admitted to me on tape, the original argument for the young demographic was driven not by fact but by necessity — ABC had low ratings and needed desperately to gin up ad bucks. They lied about the value of younger urban numbers in order to achieve that goal. And the rest of the industry bought in because they were young, urban liberals.