In his new book Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, young Hollywood native Ben Shapiro takes on the culture in the way conservatives in Hollywood are truly beginning to: upfront and confident, informed and resilient. He talks about it here with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Dude, my TV set is on the right side of my living room. It is on Fox News. The Left can’t get to it. How can your book possibly be relevant or news to me?
Ben Shapiro: If Fox News is the only thing you watch, you’re probably cool — but then, you’re paying a lot of money for one cable channel. The chances are that you watch a lot more than Fox News. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I can guarantee that if you watch anything other than Fox News, you’ve felt the Left’s ideological magnet tugging at your heartstrings. Virtually every major television comedy and drama of the last 40-odd years has been biased to the left, and the creators of the shows admitted as much to me.
Lopez: Is TV really “awesome”? God is great. TV rots your brain.
Shapiro: TV may rot our brain, but it’s tremendously entertaining. Scientific studies actually show that it’s addictive. Beyond that, television can actually forge communal bonds — what else do we discuss at the water cooler? I know that in my family, watching Lost every week became a ritual where everyone would gather from around Los Angeles to sit and discuss whether the island was in fact purgatory.
As a general matter, I think it’s supremely important that we recognize that we’re not going to get anywhere with the “TV sucks” argument. We can rip it all we want — at night, we go home and watch it. Conservatives like to pretend they don’t flip on the boob tube, but we do it just as often as liberals. Pretending that TV isn’t important isn’t productive — it’s counterproductive, especially since TV has become such an effective weapon in the Left’s arsenal.
Lopez: What’s so awesome on TV that you’re watching now? Anything conservative or otherwise redeeming about it?
Shapiro: Used to love Lost, obviously. Still ticked about that ending, though, even though I dedicated about 3,000 words to trying to decipher it. Now, I watch Parks and Recreation, which is hysterically funny — and a show with a breakout conservative character in Ron “Freaking” Swanson, the man who explains, “I think that all government is a waste of taxpayer money. My dream is to have the park system privatized and run entirely for profit by corporations, like Chuck E. Cheese.” As you can tell, he’s the butt of the joke, and often has to apologize for his conservatism by episode’s end — but in the meanwhile, he’s a cathartic character for conservatives.
Lopez: “Laughter is a weapon to be wielded, not an ultimate good,” you write. Do you see any conservatives wielding it effectively?
Shapiro: In the political space, absolutely — Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Dennis Miller, Andrew Breitbart. In the entertainment space, not one whit. Conservatives are by nature more serious than liberals — we take lifestyles seriously rather than making jokes of them, we take our politics seriously. When we do make comedies, we tend to go over the top in our denunciations of liberalism, making it unfunny (this isn’t unique to conservatives, by the way — liberals did the same in comedy throughout the 1970s). By the way, this is something that Republican candidates should recognize — showing a little humor goes a long way, which is why Huckabee and Chris Christie are so popular, while Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney remain dull as ditchwater. Reagan knew that humor worked. So, to a certain extent, did [George W.] Bush. Conservatives need to up their games on this one.
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.
Lopez: 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.
Lopez: “There is no more subversive social force than culture — and there has been no more powerful voice in our culture than television. Television has been weaponized by those who would use it to cajole, convince, and convert. Until now, we have been ignorant of what goes on behind the curtain of that Great and Powerful Oz.” You write about our need to story-tell, made possible by TV. But does primetime television matter that much anymore? With all our other distractions? Stories are told on YouTube and Facebook and maybe even Twitter. TV isn’t the end-all.
Shapiro: TV isn’t the end-all, but primetime television still matters on a scale far greater than anything else we watch together. The worst primetime network series’ ratings still draw a minimum of 3 million viewers as a general matter; high ratings can draw well in excess of 10 million viewers. The highest-rated cable programming draws about the same amount. That’s orders of magnitude larger than what you’ll see on YouTube, where you can’t get a consistent viewing of a series of videos of more than a million, if you’re unbelievably successful. There will always be appetite for longer-form entertainment than five-minute clips. The Internet does offer us the opportunity to make alternative programming, but that takes funding — and that will take renewed commitment from conservatives to entering the new media wholesale.
Lopez: You write, “The propagation of liberal values was endemic to the industry. While Ross was busy walking his lesbian ex-wife down the aisle for her wedding to her new lover, Samantha was chatting graphically about oral sex with Charlotte on Sex and the City; Shavonda and Sarah were going topless and French kissing each other on The Real World: Philadelphia; a gay man and a single woman were considering whether to have a baby together on Will & Grace; Kate was deciding in favor of abortion on Everwood; and the city of Springfield was legalizing gay marriage on The Simpsons.” What’s so wrong with that, one might ask?
Shapiro: What’s wrong with all of this is that entertainment shapes us, whether we like it or not. People tend to decide on their politics on an emotional level rather than on an intellectual level — we think about our friends and our families when deciding on political stances. That’s why it’s an illogical but effective argument for gay-marriage advocates when they charge that you can’t oppose gay marriage if you have a gay relative.
Television uses the same tactic. TV is designed to integrate new friends and families into our lives — after all, we spend hours upon hours with these characters. When Lost ended, I felt like I’d lost people I knew. That’s what good writing does. Television writing always starts with character — you have to create people that audiences will identify with and want to watch. What TV’s creators do, however, is insinuate these wonderful people into our lives, and then spoon-feed them a liberal agenda to preach about. Next thing we know, we’re accepting that agenda more easily. This is subtle and effective stuff.
Beyond that, liberals suggest that all of the above elements are “representative” of everyday America. They aren’t — they’re representative of the lives led by Hollywood creators, who simply assume that their America is everyone’s America. They reflect their own lives and transform everyone else’s.
Lopez: You write: “‘One of our agents Googled you and found your website,’ he told me. My stomach dropped. ‘I’m not sure we can represent you, because he thinks your political views will make it impossible for you to get a job in this town.’” Did you truly appreciate the plight of the conservative in Hollywood before that?
Shapiro: Not at all. In fact, I went in believing that allegations of discrimination were overblown. As a conservative, I’m generally suspicious when people talk about discrimination, since discrimination is market inefficient and usually overcome relatively easily via competition. That simply isn’t true in the TV industry, and to have somebody say it to me so clearly was emotionally wrenching.
Lopez: What do you hope to accomplish with your book?
Shapiro: I have four real goals. First, I want Americans to know what they’re watching. Knowledge inoculates us against propaganda, and allows us to continue watching and enjoying. Second, I want advertisers to wise up to the fact that they’re wasting their cash by focusing on the 18-to-49 demographic. I want them to actually broadcast — focus on the American people as a whole and make stuff we like. Third, I want liberals in Hollywood to feel pressure not to discriminate. I want them to feel uneasy and guilty about ideological bigotry, and I want them to look deep into their hearts and find the better angels of their natures. Finally, I want conservatives to engage in the television industry. Get involved. Give money to entertainment-oriented projects. I’m working with Declaration Entertainment to raise money for conservative-oriented entertainment — I want us to take the culture back, or at least make it a cultural debate rather than a leftist cultural monologue.
Lopez: What was your favorite part of writing this book?
Shapiro: Interviewing the Hollywood folks. They’re intelligent, they’re caustic, they’re fun. I just wish they were as intelligent, caustic and fun with those on the other side of the aisle — I have a feeling I would have been treated very differently if they had Googled me.
Lopez: What was the worst?
Shapiro: Getting that phone call from the agent was shocking. And I have to say, the Left’s attempt to shove this whole thing under the rug is disturbing. They say everyone knows Hollywood is Left — but for years, they’ve been maintaining that it’s in our collective kooky right-wing minds. They say that nobody should worry about discrimination in Hollywood — but they say that by exposing what they’re doing, I’m a McCarthyite. It’s absurd.
Lopez: Most shocking things you heard?
Shapiro: Marta Kauffman (Friends) stating that casting Candace Gingrich as a minister at a lesbian wedding was a “f*** you to the right.” Vin DiBona (MacGyver, America’s Funniest Home Videos) saying he’s happy about discrimination in Hollywood; Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II and Star Trek VI) saying the same thing. Perhaps the shocking thing here is that DiBona, when confronted, stood by the quote rather than apologizing for it — but he won’t suffer any consequences in Hollywood. Bill Bickley (Happy Days) saying that Happy Days had an anti-Vietnam subtext — say what?
Lopez: Are you scared — you’ll never write for The Good Wife, Andrew Breitbart will be your only friend out there?
Shapiro: I’m happy to be friends with Andrew, so no worries there. As far as writing for The Good Wife, I write in the book that I hope Hollywood gets over its anti-conservative bias and starts hiring those with whom they disagree. In the last few months, I’ve had writers’ meetings with Warner Bros. Television heads, with USA Network, with Sony Pictures Television. We’ll see how they take the book. I hope they respond with respect for the positions taken, but of course I fear they won’t. I can live with that. I’m willing to go out and raise money to compete with them, and I’m willing to continue fighting this. And — just a warning to Hollywood — there are movers and shakers in Los Angeles who are talking about filing a class-action lawsuit based on anti-conservative discrimination in Hollywood. Maybe it will take the courts to open this industry.
Lopez: Who should be scared?
Shapiro: Traditional television honchos should be scared. Now their opinions and beliefs and strategies are in the full light of day. They’re going to feel the consequences from Americans and from advertisers.
Lopez: You were a conservative activist at a young age. What have you learned? About the Right, about politics, about the Left, about yourself?
Shapiro: About the Right: We fragment far too easily. We tend to attack our allies too often and we tend to fight for territory rather than working together. These issues are too important for us to work at cross-purposes. It’s been an unbelievable pleasure to see people on the right rally around the arguments of the book — I just want to help contribute to more unification among those in the movement who want to restore more traditional American values.
About politics: It’s a nasty business. I’m constantly surprised by how often it gets personal. I like argument, and I assume people on the other side like it too — but it seems like very often, they prefer ad hominem attacks rather than honest discussion of the issues.
About the Left: One on one, they’re great. Made faceless, they can be absolutely vicious. I’ve rarely met a liberal I couldn’t have a fun and interesting discussion with. I’ve rarely met a liberal blogger I could.
Lopez: Would you offer advice to the young conservative activists of today and to come? Perhaps ones who are working on college papers, Facebooking NRO articles to family and friends.
Shapiro: Do it. Ignore everything I just said and get involved. Write and write and write. Go out and interview people. It’s a ton of fun.
Don’t let yourself be boxed into liberal traps. Don’t speak out on campus if it means a lower grade. Don’t get yourself fired on principle. Gain power, then make a difference.
Lopez: How can non-Hollywood people help Hollywood be more conservative?
Shapiro: Contribute at Declaration Entertainment; send your kids to Hollywood to become writers and help them get started with some seed money; invest in entertainment, both monetarily and with your time.
Lopez: What shows, people, projects should we be supporting?
Shapiro: As far as particular shows, I think we should watch what we want to watch, actually — I don’t really endorse boycotts per se, unless something truly egregious is going on, à la Skins (PTC did a wonderful job there). Our innate tastes will push us to watch more moderate programming. The key is making sure that conservative programming gets on the air in the first place, as opposed to choosing among liberal programming.
Most of all, we need to support the silent heroes in Hollywood who keep working while conservative. That means putting tons of pressure on Hollywood to get rid of those who discriminate, and putting pressure on advertisers to put on programming we want to watch. We need to refocus our efforts from politics to the culture, at least in a small way, and to invest our time and cash there. We can do this if we put our minds to it. Primetime Propaganda was an effort to wake us up to that necessity — now we need to take the next step and rejoin the battle. Thankfully, it’s now easier than ever to do that, with the falling costs of production and the rise of the Internet. The time is now.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.