Commentary: TV used to unite Americans. Now it divides them.
ABC made the right decision when it the sitcom "Roseanne" last week after the show's eponymous star posted racist and other offensive tweets. Her hateful language has no place in our society. Yet the show's removal is part of a larger trend of audience Balkanization that could have negative consequences.
Television shows like "I Love Lucy" in the 1950s, "All in the Family" in the 1970s and "Seinfeld" in the 1990s unified the country by forging a common culture with shared references. Wildly popular shows like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- which depicted a working woman in the 1970s -- and "The Cosby Show" -- about a beloved African-American family in the 1980s -- also had a huge impact by challenging attitudes toward sexism and racism. Democrats and Republicans with very different political beliefs and lifestyles could still connect through television.
But in recent years, Americans have increasingly chosen their entertainment along partisan lines. This development threatens to deepen the polarization between liberals and conservatives that has accelerated in the age of Trump. In December, a Pew study found that the gulf between Democrats and Republicans is the country's biggest rift -- larger than the differences between blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old, and urban and rural Americans. The share of people who think there are strong or very strong conflicts between members of the two parties rose to 86 percent. If liberals and conservatives watch entirely different television shows, the political divide will only get worse.
Last month, Fox removed from the air two series with themes and characters that probably had more appeal for liberals than for conservatives, the network's target audience. One of these shows, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," featured a black, gay New York City police captain fighting discrimination alongside a Hispanic, bisexual character. It was canceled outright. The announcement generated widespread lamentation on social media and in Hollywood and NBC later announced that it had picked up the program. Then Fox aired the final episode of "New Girl," which also takes place in an urban setting with a young, diverse cast, including a black roommate and a Jewish roommate who marries an Indian-American woman. The network simultaneously announced that it had revived "Last Man Standing," a show that ABC had canceled about a conservative Colorado dad featuring the outspoken conservative actor Tim Allen.
The growth of Netflix is exacerbating this trend. The endless array of shows and movies on the streaming serviced has splintered viewers into ever smaller niches.
Another problem with this new type of audience segmentation is that viewers who select their entertainment along purely political lines are reinforcing pre-existing worldviews, rather than being challenged to understand other perspectives. One of the most important functions of well-told stories is to expose us to new issues and ideas. The subtle messages such shows send and reinforce may be especially powerful because people may absorb them passively. Research shows that people are more likely to be critical of messages when they're aware that the source is trying to persuade them. But few people view sitcoms as vehicles of indoctrination and therefore think critically about their underlying messages.
If conservatives start tuning into Fox exclusively for their entertainment in the same way they do for their news, Americans of different political persuasions will increasingly inhabit different countries. In the age of "fake news" and "alternative facts," that's a development our deeply divided nation can't afford.
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Column by Kara Alaimo. Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of "Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication." She previously served in the Obama administration.