Some TV enriches our lives, some TV debases us. Some television opens minds, makes us think, takes us to places we would never get to visit and brings us face to face with life’s great dilemmas. There is also television that deliberately degrades, deceives, and confuses. And of course, there is TV that simply aims to distract us. Frequently, television that seeks to educate us is unbearably boring, while the shows that try to manipulate us end up polarizing and deceiving us. In contrast, TV that only aims to entertain is politically irrelevant. Or so we thought.

Recent research has found that bland, superficial, mindless television can have dire consequences. This type of television – Junk TV – is not politically neutral, even if its programs never talk about politics. This conclusion comes from an unexpected source: The American Economic Review, perhaps the world’s most respected academic economics journal. A recent edition included an article by Professors Rubén Durante, Paolo Pinotti. and Andrea Tesei titled “The Political Legacy of Entertainment TV.” The authors took advantage of the data generated in the early 1980s by the Italian TV station Mediaset – Silvio Berlusconi’s network – as it entered different regions of the country, in order to assess its political impact.

Moisés Naím
Naím is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on international economics and global politics. He is currently the chief international columnist for El País, Spain’s largest newspaper, and his weekly column is published worldwide.
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The researchers combined data on the locations Mediaset TV reached in the different regions with information about the audience and its exact geographical distribution. They also obtained opinion polls, psychological test results, information about the nature of each program, and other data. The researchers then analyzed it all using sophisticated statistical models that allowed them to identify the characteristics of those who grew up watching Mediaset – almost solely Junk TV – and those who did not.

The results are surprising.

Those who grew up watching Mediaset ended up being less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded than their peers who did not have access to the same programming. In another example, psychological tests administered to a contingent of young soldiers revealed that those who came from regions where Berlusconi’s stations were available performed between eight and 25% worse than their peers who did not watch those programs in their formative years. They found similar results in math and reading tests. As adults, the children and adolescents who had watched Mediaset scored significantly lower than those who had not.

Everyone knows television influences our behaviors and opinions. That’s nothing new or surprising. Similarly, the use of political propaganda campaigns to influence the masses is both ancient and universal. That the powerful – or those who want to become powerful – use television to achieve their goals is not a novel revelation. It is therefore tempting to disregard this study. It is also easy to assume that Silvio Berlusconi’s propaganda efforts with Mediaset were intended to serve his political ambitions.

But it's not as simple as that. At least it wasn’t the case when Berlusconi’s companies were first entering the Italian TV market. Italian television had been dominated by a state monopoly: RAI, a network that, since its founding in 1944, had a clear educational and cultural mission. In the late 1970s, however, this monopoly was cracking as private broadcasters began to enter the regional markets. Berlusconi was one of the most acquisitive media moguls. He quickly consolidated those disparate regional stations into a single network, Mediaset.

But at that time Berlusconi had no intention of entering politics, which were then tightly controlled by a few parties and their entrenched leaders. Nor did his stations broadcast political or ideological content. Instead, Mediaset had a commercial strategy focused tightly on low-brow programming: variety shows, sports, movies, and game shows.

It was only in the 1990s, when the corruption crisis known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) decimated Italy’s political system and opened the doors for Berlusconi’s political ambitions. The system changed, the traditional parties collapsed, and new political actors were able to compete for votes. No one took advantage of this opportunity better than Silvio Berlusconi, who quickly and effectively put his television companies at the service of his political ambitions. By 1990, half of Italians already had access to Mediaset. And in 1994, Berlusconi was elected prime minister of Italy.

The political impact of all this was also analyzed by the authors of the study on junk TV. Those who watched Mediaset programming as children and teenagers grew up to show a greater propensity than their peers to support populist ideas and politicians. The consequences of all this have been immense. And Italy and Mediaset are not isolated examples.

This article was originally published in El País.