One of the greatest advances in public communication was the invention of the television. As society has embraced the TV in the political sector, television has become one of the most important forces in shaping political moods and opinions.
Before the Fifties and Sixties, the town newspaper were the method of reaching the people. In 1952, however, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were campaigning for the US presidency. Eisenhower’s staff coined the “I like Ike” slogan and created TV ads that included that slogan. Stevenson decided instead to purchase TV time to deliver carefully crafted speeches. In the end, the simple sound bites were much more popular than Stevenson’s long speeches.
Richard Nixon later used television to deliver his famous “Checkers” speech in which he used the family dog to persuade Americans that he was not corrupt. After Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, TV became even more important to the public in their quest to know more about their president.
Today, scholars estimate that 50 to 75 percent of campaign expenses for lower offices are spent on TV ads. Indeed, TV ads have more influence than news coverage or debates on the public opinion of candidates. Still, these three important sources of information are all delivered to people through television. Candidates, political parties, political action committees (PACs) and super PACs all create ads for and against people and policies. For several months leading up to major elections, these commercials all but dominate the airwaves.
The TV news coverage of political campaigns is rarely interested in policy differences. Instead, coverage is more about public opinion polls. This is best described as “horse race” reporting.
Television is also responsible for the most extended election cycle in American history, and the cycle gets longer every time. As soon as the media confirmed that Barack Obama won the 2012 presidential election, TV personalities began speculating about the potential 2016 candidates. They also began discussing certain changes in Congress that might come from the 2014 midterm elections. Before TV and the Internet made it so easy to interact with innumerable politicians and political pundits, the typical election cycle was never this long.
Everything that people watch on TV contributes to their political understanding. TV shows and commercials, whether political or nonpolitical in nature, alter people’s perceptions of reality. These perceptions drive the public’s political persuasions.
The political content on TV is fairly obvious in how it works. On the news and through political advertisements, people learn about people, their actions, and their alleged motivations for those actions. Viewers learn about world events and ascribe blame to people, groups, and nations for undesirable events. People learn about which politicians have the right skills to solve specific problems. In the end, however, TV makes it easy for politicians to receive support for superficial qualities such as appearance and personality. The candidates viewed as most attractive and personable tend to win.
An example of this is the famous debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was the first presidential debate in 1960 and was aired on both the radio and TV. Since both technologies were popular at the time, the nation was split on how they were accessing the debate. Those who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon was the obvious winner due to his policy positions. However, those who watched the debate on TV overwhelmingly favored Kennedy. Scholars believe that it was Nixon’s propensity to sweat profusely, contrasted with Kennedy’s attractive appearance, that gave Kennedy an immediate lead in the polls after the debate. Today, politicians who are seen as good-looking and down-to-earth tend to be favored in the polls.
Nonpolitical television content is also important, but its influence is more discreet. Today’s sitcoms, daytime talk shows, and reality shows affect the morals, values, and beliefs of those who watch. Ideas about normalcy versus the fringe are distributed through TV shows as well. All of these ideas inform the political opinions of viewers.
Thus, the influence of TV on politics is vast and interconnected. Television news, advertisements, and seemingly nonpolitical shows all work together to form the underlying platforms on every side of the American political system.