A University of Michigan study has linked voter apathy to late night TV. The report links lack of voting with viewership of Letterman, Leno, etc. There’s also the corollary that watching programs like Oprah makes young adults more politically optimistic as well as more likely to vote.
I have to say I can see why this would be true. Seeing things like a crowd of country music fans willingly join in a chorus of the anti-Semitic “Throw the Jew Down the Well” on Da Ali G Show doesn’t make me excited for America’s future. But I don’t think watching Oprah would make me any more excited about the political process. I had a pessimistic viewpoint on politics beforehand and don’t really believe in easy, weepy solutions. With satire at least I know what’s wrong with the country. And I can choose my candidates accordingly.
One of the things I wonder is what results you would get if you fragmented the survey out further, dividing it between shows like Letterman and Leno and shows like The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher. I imagine that the former set, where comedy that addresses politics rarely dives into specifics of policies, gives the impression “they’re all crooks!” Whereas comedic shows like The Daily Show and others, which focus a bit more on politics, actually motivate voting.
Syracuse professor of being quoted in magazines and newspapers about TV Robert Thompson described comedy in a recent article as the “fifth estate.” I definitely see these shows in that light, where they keep our journalists and politicians honest. If some voters get disillusioned… well, maybe if we could have kept our estates to four in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t need satire as much as we do.