With drama in Washington, TV shows find it hard to compete

Nearly 20 million people tuned in to former FBI director James Comey's hearing, while top political dramas drew less than half that. Viewership is down by about 20 percent this year.

John Bazemore/AP
People stand in line waiting to enter the Underwood 2016 booth near the Peace Center where the CBS News Republican presidential debate was to occur on Feb. 13, 2016, in Greenville, S.C. Frank Underwood is a fictional character and the protagonist of the Netflix show House of Cards. He is portrayed by Kevin Spacey.

An unpopular president was just elected, despite running against a party darling with an ideal résumé. The win came as a surprise: voter turnout among rural, white Republicans was high and Democrats didn’t show up to the polls.

Today, voters chant “Not My President!” outside of the White House gates, while pundits criticize the president’s authoritative tendencies.

No, this is not the tale of President Trump, but rather the fictional President Underwood from Netflix’s hit show, House of Cards.

While political comedy has entered a golden age under Mr. Trump, with “Saturday Night Live” wrapping up its most-watched season in 23 years, political dramas are losing their appeal. Viewership of hit TV shows like ABC’s “Scandal,” NBC's “The Blacklist,” and CBS’s “Madam Secretary” has fallen by about 20 percent in the past year.

“Madame Secretary," the most-watched show of the three, got an average of 8.3 million viewers. By comparison, the real-life hearing of former FBI Director James Comey last week drew an audience of nearly 20 million.

A variety of factors may be behind the decline: different show times, increased television options, or a natural waning of popularity. But an unusual presidency has likely also played a role, taking up Americans’ bandwidth for political drama and making it more difficult for creators to write storylines that don't get overtaken by headlines.

“There is a degree to which people are seeing fiction reflected in reality and reality reflected in the fiction,” says Nikki Usher, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “And that can be disorienting to people.”

Some viewers contacted by the Monitor say that they enjoy political dramas more since the election. The majority, however, say their interest has waned.

“The escapism is gone,” said David Howard, a “House of Cards” fan from Pennsylvania.

Pining for a different West Wing

When “House of Cards” premiered in 2013, the White House was occupied by the Obamas – a supportive family unit that contrasted with the competitive marriage of Frank and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

But today, real-life political developments are so fascinating that many tune into that instead of drama, says Stef Woods, an instructor of American studies and media at American University in Washington. As a result, “House of Cards” has dropped from Netflix’s most popular show to No. 6, according to independent media company surveys reviewed by Ms. Woods.

“I haven’t watched the latest season,” confesses Ms. Woods, who teaches a popular class on the show, “but I was sure to watch the Comey hearing.”

However, other political dramas have seen a resurgence. According to Google Trends, there was an influx of searches for “The West Wing” around the time of Trump’s election and inauguration – the highest spike since the popular show ended in 2006. VICE’s Motherboard recently speculated that that was driven by liberals struggling to cope with Trump’s presidency, musing that an ideal – if fictional – Democratic president “is available on-demand to soothe frayed nerves.”

Entertainment as a mirror

Writers, producers, and actors say the Trump administration has made their job more difficult.

“Now, we have a hard time competing with reality,” Kerry Washington, who plays “Scandal” main character Olivia Pope, told Hollywood Reporter in April. Shonda Rhimes, the creator and showrunner, had to rewrite the second half of Season 6 before it aired this spring because the plot line included Russia hacking the US presidential election – a development that turned out to be too real for their fictional drama.

Just as writers’ imaginations are influenced by the same events shaping real-life politics, so some see the dramas’ influence on the Trump administration. The New York Times’ fashion section, for example, recently suggested that some of first lady Melania Trump’s sartorial choices have been inspired by the fictional first lady of Netflix, Claire Underwood.

“We know that these shows are influencing real life,” says Dr. Usher. “All of these forms of entertainment have a mirror.”

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