Does Watching Light Entertainment Really Increase Your Odds Of Voting Populist?



Fans of light entertainment may be more populist. At least, that's the finding of a study recently published in the American Economic Review: economists studying the rise of Silvio Berlusconi's media empire found a curious correlation between light entertainment consumption and support for populist parties in Italy. Areas of the country with earlier (and superior) access to the ex-Italian president's media network (Mediaset) appear to have been more likely to vote for his (more populist) political party, Forza Italia. 

First, some background. Italian law on television broadcasting used to be extremely strict, even banning private channels until 1976 when they were permitted but only on a local level. Berlusconi launched Canale 5 in 1980, expanding his network to include Italia 1 and Rete 4 by 1984. Eventually, these three channels became Mediaset. 


By 1985, Mediaset was available to roughly half the population. This increased to 98 percent in 1990, putting it on par with state-run broadcaster RAI. But Mediaset contrasted with the more subdued, earnest RAI. Not only did it air for longer each day, but it focused on movies and light entertainment, which took up 27 percent and 63 percent of airtime respectively. Meanwhile, RAI concentrated on the news (34 percent) and educational content (22 percent). Mediaset didn't broadcast newscasts until 1991. Even then, they remained a sideshow with entertainment shows – including one involving a model stripping every time a contestant correctly answered a question – at the forefront. 

The relatively slow pace of Mediaset's expansion has allowed economists to investigate its effects on voting behavior. They found that municipalities exposed to Mediaset before 1985 displayed a 1.5 percent or so increase in vote share in favor of Forza Italia from 1994 up until 2008. That's 14 years and five elections.

This is a correlation and, therefore, does not prove causation, but to try to remove the possibility of third-factor interference as far as possible, the researchers compared towns and villages with good quality reception to neighboring towns without it. Theoretically, the citizens of neighboring towns and villages would come from similar backgrounds. Those who had poorer access to Mediaset (for random geographical reasons, such as mountains) were less likely to vote for populist parties, the researchers say.

The most affected were the young and old, who were almost 10 percent more likely to vote for populist parties if they had access to Mediaset. Though the reason for this populism is different between the two groups, the study authors note. While older viewers may have grown more attached to the network, increasing the likelihood that they would watch biased newscasts in favor of Berlusconi in the run-up to the election, the younger viewers (younger than 10) may have had their cognitive development dampened by higher exposure to light entertainment.


The researchers point to studies linking high entertainment consumption in childhood to lower scores in standardized numeracy and literacy tests, and lower levels of civic engagement (i.e. interest in politics and participation in voluntary groups). They also highlight evidence that Forza Italia was more popular among less educated, less engaged voters. 

Interestingly, the legacy of Mediaset appears to persist. Support in favor of the left-wing (but still populist) Five Star Movement is higher in municipalities with earlier access to Mediaset. This, the researchers say, suggests "exposure to entertainment TV made viewers more supportive of populist movements and leaders in general, and not just of Berlusconi or the conservative camp."

But before we leap to too many conclusions, it's important to say (again) that the results are correlational, not causal, and as the researchers themselves point out, there are many more (and important) factors involved in supporting populism (including socioeconomic failures and disillusionment with traditional politicians). While "entertainment television may have contributed to creating a fertile ground for the success of populist leaders", future studies will need to confirm to what extent this is true.

[H/T: The Atlantic]