Television programs and trust in government
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Television programs and trust in government

August 11, 2022
Paul Hitlin, Liz Schroeder

The entertainment industry plays a big role in telling stories about the government. Television series such as “The West Wing,” “House of Cards” and “NCIS” offer portrayals of how government touches our lives even though the worlds depicted are fictional and events often exaggerated. For better or worse, the storylines in these shows are often the most memorable and colorful narratives of government many people will see.

The precise impact of entertainment on the public’s views of government is difficult to understand, although a number of researchers are doing important work looking into the question. A nationwide survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service included several questions relating to six prominent television shows about government, and the results offer some insights into the relationship between entertainment and public views.

TV shows can have a large audience.  

Popular television shows can reach millions of people whether they air on broadcast networks or streaming platforms. For example, two-thirds of adults in the U.S. say they have seen an episode of the police procedural drama NCIS. One-third say they watch the show “a lot.” That means the portrayal of government in that show is seen by large portions of the country.

Even shows that have not aired in years stay in viewers’ memories for a while. The West Wing, a series about a fictional presidential administration, has not been on the air for 16 years. Yet 31% of adults say they have seen an episode.

The action series 24 has not been on the air since 2010, yet 37% of people say they have seen an episode while 15% reported watching the show “a lot.” Roughly the same numbers say they watched Parks and Recreation, a comedy about local government. Almost 3 in 10 people say they have seen Scandal or House of Cards—two dramas that have not aired new episodes in four years.

TV audiences are segmented by political views.

Many television shows are not watched by the same number of people across the political spectrum. For five of the six shows we asked about, Democrats were more likely to have seen at least one episode. The sole exception was 24 which has been seen by the same proportion of Democrats and Republicans (40%). Advertisers and researchers have known for years that television audiences are segmented. This does not necessarily mean Democrats watch more television or watch more shows about government. But the viewership of the well-known shows we asked about tended to lean Democratic.

People who watched these six television shows tended to view the government more favorably.

Our survey showed people who had watched most of the shows in our sample trusted the federal government more than the population as whole. This is likely because greater number of Democrats reported watching these shows and Democrats tend to trust government more than Republicans. The portrayals of government in these shows may contribute to views of the government, and this relationship deserves further investigation.

More research is needed to understand how much portrayals in popular entertainment impact the public’s views of government. What is known is that television shows are seen by large audiences and can provide lasting images related to how government functions. While audiences come with their own viewpoints and experiences, popular shows are a crucial avenue for disseminating narratives about government even if those ideas are dramatized for entertainment purposes. This is an opportunity to be explored if we want more accurate and positive government representations to reach the public.

Liz Schroeder is a former intern on the Partnership’s Research, Evaluation and Modernizing Government team.

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