Today's TV favorites may channel 2020's election preferences — and a tilt to the middle

Today's TV favorites may channel 2020's election preferences — and a tilt to the middle
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Eulogies abound for the lost American center. In our rough and unruly era, it’s assumed all those voters have gone to their eternal rest in some corner of heaven where politicians cross the aisle to shake hands and catch up on news about their kids.

But moderates haven’t disappeared, and the center isn’t dead. You can actually find it, alive and well, watching a good crime show on TV.

After years of political polarization that even included the kinds of entertainment Republicans and Democrats consumed, early signs indicate more Americans may be moving back to the middle — a trend that might start in the living room but could then extend to the voting booth.

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Every couple of years, a survey company called E-Poll canvasses self-identified liberal and conservative viewers, to find out how red and blue diverge when it comes to primetime television habits.

Poll results in the raucous 2016 election cycle confirmed pundits’ worst assessments: We were a divided nation. Republicans and Democrats often didn’t watch the same TV shows, with red and blue favorites falling along predictable lines.

Three years ago, Democrats loved such series as “Doctor Who” on the arguably elitist cable channel BBC America, and a show on Oprah’s network called “The Haves and Have Nots.” Republicans, meanwhile, were hooked on “Blue Bloods,” a CBS program about a family of working-class Irish cops, and the NBC series “Grimm,” which turned familiar fairy tales into dark and gory modern morality plays.

Much like the choices people make about which news channel to watch, these fictional shows seemed to play into each side’s preconceived notions of the country and the culture, with little room for overlap.

But the latest survey, taken last year into early this year, showed a shift. Half of the top 20 primetime shows on broadcast, cable and streaming were favorites of both red and blue viewers. Nearly all those shows were straight-down-the-middle and non-controversial, what Hollywood executives call “comfort food television.”

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Both Democrats and Republicans who were surveyed loved “Stranger Things” on Netflix and the revived “The X Files” series, along with reality shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “American Pickers.” They both liked the caustic laughs of “South Park” and the nostalgia of ABC’s “The Goldbergs.” Heaviest among the favorites were meat-and-potatoes crime dramas like “NCIS,” “Chicago PD” and “9-1-1.”

Shows that were not favorites of both sides were nonetheless similar — simple, solid genre programs. Red viewers liked “The Blacklist” and the home-renovation show “Fixer Upper,” while blue viewers preferred “Criminal Minds” and the cooking challenge “Top Chef.” All are long-running shows that play to broad socio-economic audiences.

Some survey surprises exploded assumptions about the liberal/conservative cultural divide. MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore Family Vacation,” featuring an iconic cast culled from the white working class, was actually a Democratic favorite; it didn’t show up in the red column. ABC’s hit “Modern Family” was missing-in-action on the blue list, but landed with GOP viewers. In fact, that series, which features a gay married couple and their adopted daughter, has been a conservative choice for years because of its emphasis on, yes, family values.

In 2016, red and blue audiences went out of their way to watch different views of their country and culture. Both sides seemed to embrace sharp edges.

The message now? Viewers, red and blue, are looking for something closer to harmony. In cop shows, medical dramas and Marvel superhero TV episodes, everyone knows who the good guys are; everyone knows the good guys will win. And they will win because they do the right thing, the kinds of things that Americans — in the stories we tell ourselves — always do.

This viewing shift may reflect an audience weary of constantly choosing sides, tired of emphasizing differences over similarities. That turn-around could translate to the voting booth in 2020 and might determine whether the electorate renews Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE for another four years or chooses to reboot a familiar classic like, say, Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE.

Without realizing it, the TV choices that viewers are now making may express an urge to once again do something everyone can agree on — even if it’s just the latest episode of “This Is Us.”

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.