Why is Hollywood's Approval Rating In the Toilet?

On April 18, the Pew Research Center released the results of a recurring survey centered around people’s trust in government. In order to assess the results of several institutions, Pew asks the following question: “Is [insert item] having a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in the country these days.”

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Only 33% said the entertainment industry was having a positive effect. 51% said it was having a negative effect. What I don’t understand is why the entertainment industry didn’t blow the lid off the survey on the positive side. It’s entertainment. Doesn’t everyone want to be entertained? Since Pew only asked a single question, we can’t effectively drill into this result to learn any hard and fast truths. However, by examining other studies, there are some inferences we may be able to draw.

The entertainment industry was but one of thirteen institutions the Pew survey mentioned, so it seems reasonable to conclude that respondents were very well aware what they were being asked. The question was not, “what is your opinion about the quality of entertainment you see from Hollywood?” The question was about the industry’s influence on the trajectory of the country, in the gestalt. Apparently, just over half the respondents think that Hollywood is, simply put, a bad influence. If the comments left for Big Hollywood articles are of any indication, people don’t feel Hollywood represents their values, morals, ethics, political views, religious views, or much of anything else. People fail to identify with the characters they see on the screen. They don’t care for dramatic or comedic situations presented. They don’t agree with what Tom Hanks or James Cameron or Sean Penn or Roger Ebert have to say about a wide variety of topics.

Are these assertions valid? It’s impossible to say without a scientific survey. The anecdotal evidence, however, seems to suggest as much. A 2008 survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League found that 59% of Americans believe “that the people who run the TV networks and the major movie studios do not share the religious and moral values of most Americans.” Before anyone raises a claim of bias in the survey, it was conducted by Marttila Communications Group, run by John Marttila, a senior advisor to John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Let’s go one step further. The 1998 book Hollywood’s America: Social and Political Themes in Motion Pictures, is essentially an exhaustive scientific study of this issue. Among many conclusions, the authors found that, “Hollywood...ideology is generally left-leaning and highly critical of traditional features of modern society”.

The study’s blockbuster results, however, seem to support much of the reason for Big Hollywood’s very existence. Have a look at this:
“We tapped the movie elite’s views on trends in their own medium of expression…67% agreed that movies should promote social reform…81% disagreed that movies were too critical of traditional values…76% disagreed that there was too much sex in the movies—a statistic that shows just how differently this group views its art from the way in which the general public, which has consistently expressed concern over the issue, sees it”.

There’s more, and I quote at length here because it really explains the Pew results.

“Prindle and Endersby (1993)…indicate that Hollywood remains more liberal than the American public on a wide range of issues…raising taxes, less admiring of American business, more favorably inclined towards government regulation of business, and less suspicious of labor unions than is the public in general…the authors also argued that it was virtually impossible to measure traditionally conservative attitudes among the Hollywood elite, as they could find few, if any, representatives of such attitudes.”

Et tu, Nikki Finke?

Further, it stands to reason that, if 51% of people feel the entertainment industry is having a negative effect on the country, then we would expect them to avoid consumption of media content produced by Hollywood. Unquestionably, this would appear to be the case. Television viewership is sharply declining and box office admissions have been flat to down for the past several years. The MPAA reported that in 2009, 32% of Americans simply did not go to the movies, compared to 26% in 2006 and 24% in 2004. The trend suggests further support for the hypothesis that ideology is driving audiences away. Again, however, the data is not strictly scientific. After all, one might just as easily point to the rise of on-demand internet content as being the primary driver of this trend.

Nevertheless, while the reasons behind Pew’s results are unexplored, the anecdotal evidence seems to provide an explanation. Admittedly, my conclusions are not scientific and should not be relied upon as such. But as the saying goes, when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.

This leads us to an inevitable query: does Hollywood’s apparent left-leaning ideology impact revenues? I’ll examine that issue in my next article.

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