The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 10-16
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Liberated Viewers, Polarized Voters—
The Implications of Increased Media Choice for Democratic Politics
Not everything about the Internet is new. Before Internet users could access vast amounts of political information with the click of a mouse, cable subscribers could flip between different 24-hour news channels with the push of a remote. Before Internet users could download music or order movie tickets online, cable viewers could pick between different music channels and hundreds of movies and entertainment shows everyday. In short, long before the Internet offered an alternative to mainstream media, cable television satisfied many niche interests.
The Internet resembles cable television insofar as both media multiply the amount and variety of media content available. Hence, understanding the impact that cable television had on democratic politics can help us anticipate the impact of the Internet. Greater choice, be it on the Internet or via cable television, allows people to watch and read what they want. The current media environment offers exhaustive and detailed political information, but in order to learn about politics, media users must deliberately decide to filter out countless non-political programs and websites. And greater choice also allows people to bypass democratic politics more easily, leaving political decisions to their more motivated and more partisan peers. Cable television and the Internet liberalize the marketplace for media content by removing constraints on free choice, but in doing so they may also polarize democratic politics.
The way that cable TV and the Internet increase choice is most obvious when compared to the broadcast television environment of thirty years ago. Broadcast television offered little diversity and choice. Viewers had three networks to choose from, and maybe an independent or educational station on top of that. And three networks did not always mean three different things; every day in the early evening (and again later, in the 10 or 11 o'clock hour), most, if not all, broadcast channels offered local and national news. Network newscasts reached market shares of nearly ninety percent, 1 but a ninety percent market share for news did not imply ninety percent customer satisfaction. For large segments of the population, being entertained is the primary reason for watching television. 2 If so many people wanted entertainment, why did they all watch news?
In answer to this question, former NBC audience researcher Paul Klein offered his "Theory of Least Objectionable Program." 3 According to this two-stage model, people first decide to watch television and then pick the available program they like best. At certain times of the day, network programming strategies effectively limited opportunities for broadcast viewers to a choice between watching news and turning off the TV. And when offered a choice between ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News, most people decided to watch the news. One study conducted in the early seventies showed that forty percent of the respondents reported watching programs because they appeared on the channel they were already watching or because someone else wanted to see them. 4 Audience research finds relatively low repeat-viewing rates, measured at around 50%. 5 That is, only about half the viewers of a particular program watch the same program on the following day. Repeat-viewing rates are low for all program types and do not increase when repeat-viewing of genres instead of particular programs is evaluated. So, a major share of television viewing does not seem to follow the deliberate choice of a program, but rather convenience, availability of spare time, and the decision to spend that time watching television. 6 Many people watched broadcast news not because they wanted to watch news, but because they wanted to watch television.
Yet, as learning from the news does not necessarily require high levels of attention or political interest, even this more or less accidental and unmotivated exposure to broadcast news serves to increase political knowledge. 7 With the growth of cable television 8 the conditions for such passive learning about politics came to an end. Cable removed the...