A study of Italian TV watchers has found a direct correlation between exposure to televised light entertainment and likelihood to vote for populist candidates.

The study, which used data from several different elections, found that support for the Italian populist party Forza Italia was greater in municipalities that had early access to Mediaset, which at the time broadcast only light entertainment and no news programs.

The staggered deployment of Mediaset throughout Italy provided researchers with historical data on two groups – those who had access to Mediaset and those who didn’t – which could then be compared to voting records.

The study found that municipalities that had been exposed to Mediaset prior to 1985 showed higher support for Forza Italia when Berlusconi first ran for election in 1994, compared to those areas that were exposed after 1991, when Mediaset began to broadcast news programs.

While Mediaset was owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the effect was found in support of populist candidates other than Berlusconi himself.

Greater support for populist candidates in municipalities exposed to Mediaset prior to 1985 was found in five subsequent elections, through 2008. Even in 2013, voters in those areas show higher support for the Five Star Movement which, while having many ideological differences from Forza Italia, shares with it populist rhetoric and a ‘charismatic media personality’ as party leader.

The researchers also combined the information on early Mediaset exposure with data on TV consumption, political beliefs, and cognitive abilities at the individual level. They found that the effect of entertainment television on subsequent voting behavior was even greater in people exposed to Mediaset as very young viewers (under 10 years old) or very old viewers (over 55), who tend as groups to watch the most television.

The researchers concluded that exposure to entertainment television, especially among young viewers, may contribute to making individuals ‘cognitively and culturally shallower, and ultimately more vulnerable to populist rhetoric.’ While recognizing that discontent with political establishment has many different and complex sources, by popularizing cultural models and linguistic codes, entertainment television may contribute to laying the foundation for future success of populist political candidates.