Monitors at RAI television studios in Rome display Silvio Berlusconi’s message announcing his political debut on Jan. 26, 1994. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
This is a story about how the lowest common denominator of popular media paved the way for the lowest common denominator of populist politics. And it’s got data.
It begins with the opening of Italy’s airwaves, long the dominion of the highly regarded public broadcaster RAI. In the 1980s, an aggressive and unabashedly unsophisticated channel called Mediaset elbowed its way into the market and spread across the country, buying up small local channels and countering RAI’s educational mission with a heavy dose of cartoons, sports, soap operas, movies and other light entertainment.
By 1990, 49 out of 50 Italians could watch Mediaset — half of the country had gained access in just five years. These unusual events allowed a team of Italian economists to compare towns that initially had Mediaset with otherwise equivalent towns that didn’t get reception until later, and thus calculate how a few extra years of lowbrow TV can shape a society’s politics.
The results are bleak. In the American Economic Review, Ruben Durante of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Paolo Pinotti of Bocconi University in Milan and Andrea Tesei of Queen Mary University of London analyze detailed broadcast-transmitter data to show that more exposure to Mediaset’s vapid programming was followed by an enduring boost in support for populist candidates peddling simple messages and easy answers.
You may think this relationship has an obvious explanation, presumably because you’re aware that Mediaset’s founder and controlling owner is noted populist politician and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the researchers go to great lengths to prove this isn’t just a Berlusconi effect. For starters, the bump extends to his populist competitors, particularly the Five Star Movement. Founded on a comedian’s blog a decade ago, the anti-establishment movement became the biggest single party in Italy’s Parliament after last year’s election.
Television’s role in populist success apparently lies in entertainment, not in political messaging. During the period when certain areas had greater Mediaset exposure than others, neither Mediaset nor Berlusconi had entered the political fray. The researchers digitized years of old newspaper television listings to show that Mediaset offered almost three times as many hours of movies and entertainment as RAI and avoided almost all news and educational programming.
Benjamin Olken, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who pioneered the broadcast-tower analysis used by the Italian team, said the research added to evidence that “TV that’s not explicitly about politics can have an effect on politics.”
In a 2009 analysis published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Olken analyzed differences in TV and radio signals in 606 villages on the Indonesian island of Java to show how greater access to broadcast media corresponded with lower civic participation and lower levels of trust.
In Italy, the economists also used critics’ reviews, as well as ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America, to show Mediaset’s programming was of lower quality and less suitable for a general audience.
They found that lowbrow television’s electoral effect came with a bump of almost 10 percentage points between the two groups that watched it most: those under age 10 and those 55 and older. As they aged, the two groups would both come to support populists, albeit for different reasons.
Young people who watched Mediaset during their formative years would, Durante said, grow up to be “less cognitively sophisticated and less civically minded” than their peers who only had access to public broadcasting and local stations during that period.
Durante describes it as a matter of opportunity cost: Every hour you spend watching TV is an hour you aren’t reading, playing outside or socializing with other kids. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that may have long-term effects on what kind of person you will become.”
On a battery of psychological and cognitive tests administered to military conscripts, young men from areas with more Mediaset exposure were between 8 percent and 25 percent more likely to earn the lowest scores. On an international test conducted in 2012, Italian adults from places where they first would have been exposed to Mediaset under the age of 10 had math and reading scores that were significantly worse than those of their peers. They were also less civically minded and less politically active.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that these men and women were attracted to Berlusconi and later the Five Star Movement, both of whom were more likely to use simple language in their speeches and platforms, the researchers show.
Trashy TV’s brain-numbing effects weren’t as pronounced for Italians exposed to Mediaset later in life — researchers found their test scores were similar to their peers. Instead, their populist leanings were influenced by the news. By the time Mediaset offered regular news programming, in the early 90s, many older viewers had been hooked on the channel’s cheap entertainment and were much more likely to watch news offered by Mediaset than by other broadcasters.
Coverage at stations tilted toward Berlusconi in the 1994 election, soon after scandals felled the conservative government and inspired the entrepreneur turned populist demagogue to throw his hat in the ring. Older TV watchers were glued to the news and swept up in the campaign.
This result echoes a 2017 analysis in the same academic journal by a separate team that used variation in channel listings to calculate that Fox News gave Republicans a half-point boost in 2000, building up to a six-percentage-point advantage in 2008 compared with a baseline scenario in which the channel didn’t exist. They did not find a similar significant effect for MSNBC.
In Italy, it’s not that television made voters more conservative. Instead, Durante said, it seems to have made them more vulnerable to the anti-establishment stances favored by the country’s populist leaders of all persuasions.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, Berlusconi was “well positioned to benefit from the decline in cognitive skills and civic engagement,” they write, but by 2013, he was outflanked by the insurgent Five Star Movement, whose strong rhetoric won over the Mediaset-affected voters who had once broken for Berlusconi.