Study Links Politics, TV Viewing

WASHINGTON, D.C. It will take an eclectic media buy to reach the much-coveted undecided and independent voters during this year’s presidential election. That’s one finding of many in an extensive survey on voters’ TV-watching habits as they relate to political leanings being released today by Interpublic Group media agency Initiative.

Among the findings: Undecided voters are particularly drawn to cartoons, talk shows and certain TV programs, including My Wife & Kids, CSI: Miami and the reality shows Fear Factor and Big Brother. They are less likely to be found watching dramas or news.

Independents-those not affiliated with any party-are particularly interested in sports and documentaries and shows including 8 Simple Rules, Yes, Dear and Last Action Star. They are less likely to watch dramas or talk shows.

“Animation generally skews more male, younger and more urban,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, evp and director of global research integration at Initiative. “The No. 1 comedy, My Wife & Kids, ranked seventh last season among African Americans. CSI: Miami tends to have a higher concentration of Hispanic viewers. Undecided voters are spending a lot of time with shows that have a lot of ethnic appeal.”

The online study was conducted July 9-16. Of the 1,000 respondents who took part, 51 percent identified themselves as decided, 37 percent as undecided, and 12 percent as not voting. Some 15 percent called themselves independent.

The findings may have implications for both presidential campaigns-which have spent a combined $180 million on advertising this year-particularly since it also asked voters about their priorities on political issues. It found that healthcare was the No. 1 issue for both undecideds and independents. But while undecided voters said their second-highest concern was education, independent voters worried more about taxes. “Education is an issue that speaks to minorities,” Koerner said.

A disproportionate number of decided voters watch TV news on a regular basis. Likewise, a disproportionate number of undecideds shun TV news. “The place to reach undecided voters is more often in the entertainment genres than news,” Koerner said.

The data also suggest that between April and July of this year, Internet blogs saw a huge spike as a source of political information for both undecided and independent voters.

The survey also offers a slew of data about the viewing habits of Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are the most dominant political group in the prime-time TV audience across most genres-animation, comedies, documentaries, dramas, movies and talk shows. Republicans are the most highly present in prime-time instructional/ home improvement programs, news, reality and sports.

The poll also asked how viewers feel about political ads. Viewers of cartoons and reality TV were the least likely to say they felt negatively toward them; sports and documentary watchers were most likely to react negatively.

Political ad veteran Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, emphasized the importance of undecided voters. “My sense of the election is there are 25 million or less people who will decide this election,” he said. They range, he said, from progressives on the far left who don’t want to vote for Kerry to traditional liberals who would be enticed by a Ralph Nader candidacy to far-right conservatives who voted for Pat Buchanan in the last election to sporadic voters who may turn out to vote this time. “I think the Kerry campaign doesn’t win unless some outside groups come in and relate to these undecided voters,” Hillsman said. “Kerry hasn’t been effective at it.”

Hillsman is pitching his own idea-a “tipping point plan”-in an effort to tip undecided voters in favor of Kerry. It includes creative based on 10 issues that would specifically appeal to the group in eight regions of the country. He is searching for funding from independent groups.

Tom Messner, co-founder of Euro RSCG in New York and a member of Ronald Reagan’s Tuesday Team in 1984, cautioned against reading too much into the numbers. “Dick Morris told the Clintons that if they wanted to attract the undecided voters, they must take a vacation in Wisconsin, because undecided voters like the outdoors,” he said. “Poor Hillary and Bill traipsed around in a tent so they could appeal to undecided voters. Now we move from that to cartoons.”