Can Political Drama Compete With Reality In The Trump Era?

Last year, on this very blog, we examined how the new wave of populist politics was dominating attention share in comparison to entertainment media. In said article (which you can read here), we questioned whether the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 would be an anomaly contained within last year’s presidential election or had the former Apprentice star painted a new political landscape where he was the leader in terms of visibility as well as the United States.

On June 8th, 2017 it seems we got our answer…

Appointment Based Interviewing

Although Donald Trump’s position has changed from underdog candidate to unorthodox president since we last covered the huge attention share commanded by his social media activities, the essence of the effect remains the same. Even as President of the United States, Trump has retained his position of ringmaster in his social media circus with his bullish, confrontational, and occasionally bizarre (covfefe?) tweets keeping their position as the star act. But still, we find the same principle applies to his personal black hole of attention as it did before: Trump is a hero to his supporters and a villain to seemingly everyone else. So, whatever someone’s sentiment is towards the current POTUS, he remains a compelling character regardless.

What has changed, however, is it is not just his actions online that are dwarfing the attention share received by entertainment media but also his actions as president. And there was no clearer example of this when the former FBI director, James Comey, gave his testimony after his dismissal by Donald Trump to the Senate live on national television in early June.

The idea of political procedure being appointment-based viewing outside of an election cycle would have been preposterous only a year ago but that is exactly what we saw on June 8th 2017. Bars across the US opened early to gain extra business from customers eager to see what potential fireworks and bombshells awaited in the testimony. This wasn’t so much a congressional hearing as it was a gladitorial event.

Such treatment was born out in the viewing figures which topped both the average viewership for an NFL game and primetime behemoths such as the season 7 finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead:

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It is also worth noting that the highly anticipated hearing took place at 10am EST on a Thursday where the average viewership received by daytime ratings leader CBS Daytime is a mere 3.6mil. Had the testimony taken place outside of traditional office hours it is extremely likely the viewing figures of 19.5mil would have increased many times over.

The drama around the hearing was caused by Trump’s firing of Comey two months earlier for reasons and motives given by the White House which shifted on nearly a daily basis and clearly, it created a narrative that was irresistible to the American public. So, how did such a potent real-life political plot compare to one of television’s most popular and acclaimed political dramas which had only just returned to our screens?

Beware The Ides of May

After kick starting the platform’s wildly successful foray into original programming, Netflix’s House of Cards remains a standard bearer for the subscription service. But is now seemingly tame skullduggery of House of Cards starting to suffer in the current political climate?

Season 5 of the series dropped on Netflix on May 30th, just 9 days before Comey took the stand and the amount of social media attention share taken by both speaks for itself:

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Admittedly, the show possibly wasn’t helped by its lowest aggregate review score to date as House of Cards season 5 was the first season of the series to not be “Certified Fresh” on Rottentomatoes.com. Even the critical consensus on the site states:

 “House of Cards enjoys a confident return to form this season, though its outlandish edge is tempered slightly by the current political climate.”  

Anticipation for the political drama was also lower than usual with the official trailer for season 5 receiving the lowest amount of views compared to its preceding seasons’ promos on Netflix’s YouTube channel.

However, it may not be just House of Cards’ perceived dwindling quality or the show’s once cutting nature being blunted by the persistent noise emanating from Trump’s White House that could be causing the series to be overshadowed by its real life counterpart.

Are Audiences Seeking Political Asylum in 2017?

In a time where political partisanship in the US is so fierce that even media as fantastical and politically innocuous as a new Star Wars movie can find itself inadvertently dragged into the maelstrom, are audiences increasingly looking to entertainment services and providers to escape the seemingly constant political turmoil?

According to this data from Global Web Index regarding U.S Netflix subscribers’ interest in the subject of Politics that could be the case, since we have seen a downward trend in that preference in Netflix’s user base over the last 4 quarters:

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While this trend could suggest that audiences may have started turning to entertainment as escapism from the world of politics or have simply grown weary of the subject altogether, a recent success story suggests political drama may still have a place in the Trump era.

In December last year, ABC curiously extended the season break of its new political drama, Designated Survivor, which counter-intuitively kept the primetime top 10 show out of the crucial Nielsen ratings sweeps in February. Although there is no official reason given by the network for such a long mid-season absence, it could be that the network was sensing that audiences with a thirst for political fare would have their attention pointed towards Donald Trump’s inauguration and first month as president instead.

The high-concept nature of Designated Survivor means it provides less of a conflict of interest with real-world political events compared to Netflix's more grounded House of Cards. Even so, ABC may have felt the need to protect the show’s positive rating numbers even if that meant sacrificing the increased advertising revenue that such a strong performing show can normally generate during Nielsen’s February sweeps. That Designated Survivor was subsequently green-lit for a second season shows that the prudent scheduling of the show paid off.

So it seems awareness could be spreading among entertainment providers that media with political content should be carefully placed and scheduled in the current climate. But, in a world where the President of the United States can turn audiences’ heads instantly with a single bullish tweet or by issuing his famous catchphrase of “You’re fired” once more to a high ranking official, determining that placement will be just as delicate exercise as building a real House of Cards.

David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher