The New York Times‘s Upshot blog recently published a neat (and viral) bit of content. By tracking the number of Facebook “likes” that the top fifty U.S. television shows have received in every zip code, the data whizzes at the Upshot were able to assemble a series of maps that impressively illustrate the great cultural divide in today’s America.
This data led the blog’s writers to conclude that America is split into three primary factions: cities and suburbs; rural areas; and an area they have dubbed “the Black Belt,” a chunk of the country extending from the Mississippi River up the East Coast to Washington, D.C. Each of these swaths of America can be broadly defined by their television show preferences: the Upshot considers cities and ‘burbs to be Modern Family America; the rural areas to be Duck Dynasty America (the correlation between Duck Dynasty fans and Trump voters was stronger than any other show); and the Black Belt to be Empire America. (One can also conclude that Mormons hate anything Seth MacFarlane has a hand in. Utah abhors American Dad and Family Guy with equal ferocity.)
This might just seem like a way to peek into the living rooms of people across America and either agree with or mock their viewing habits, but this information seems to have played a part in the strategy behind the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. As the Upshot’s Josh Katz points out, police procedurals are very popular in rural areas, none more so than NCIS. Katz writes:
A Forbes article about Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, said that the Trump campaign may have specifically targeted “NCIS” viewers. It said data analysis “drove the scaled-back TV ad spending by identifying shows popular with specific voter blocs in specific regions — say, ‘NCIS’ for anti-Obamacare voters or ‘The Walking Dead’ for people worried about immigration.”
So there’s that bit of fascinating insight into twenty-first century campaigning tactics.
The national maps are intriguing enough on their own, but I had even more fun messing around with an interactive tool at the bottom of the article where you can enter any zip code and snoop on the viewing habits of any city, and then get short lists of cities that are most and least similar.
I inputted a bunch of Texas cities, and what I discovered will shock you. Just kidding. Actually the conclusions are so not shocking, the results kind of come full circle back to something like surprise. To mangle the catchphrase of late football coach Dennis Green, what I found was these maps show us that we are who we think we are. For the most part, at least.
First, let’s examine Austin, the state’s great outlier, that “blueberry in the cherry pie.” With its love of Game of Thrones, Modern Family, and The Daily Show (and a passion for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that rivals the City of Brotherly Love itself), and its disdain for Duck Dynasty, NCIS, and The Voice, Austin keeps company with like-minded, hipstery college towns like Seattle, Portland, and Madison, Wisconsin. Austin is one of the only cities in Texas that does not closely share viewing habits with any other Lone Star town. Also of note, outside of Daniel Tosh’s native state of Florida, the Capital City is one of the only places in a former Confederate state where Tosh.0 is popular.
Dallas’s top three are Empire, The First 48, and Love & Hip Hop. Fort Worth has the same preferences as Dallas, albeit in different order. And Houstonians are partial to Empire and Love & Hip Hop. This data would suggest these three major Texas cities are outposts of the Black Belt.
But here is the not-so-surprising surprising thing, a bit of knowledge that will likely displease anyone I know in Houston (or Dallas, for that matter): the Bayou City and Big D share viewing habits most similar to . . . each other. In addition to loving Empire and Love & Hip Hop, Houston and Dallas also have a stronger affinity for Scandal than anywhere else in Texas.
But Houston strays from Dallas with its love for The Simpsons, one that is shared by other Southwestern cities with high Hispanic populations. (Houston loves animation; it also enjoys South Park and Family Guy more than any other Texas city.) There is another interesting divergence between the two cities. If you look at the second and third most-similar markets for both of those cities, Dallas is very similar to Indianapolis and Charlotte, while Houston is more like Miami Beach and Tavernier, Florida, an unincorporated town on Key Largo. It’s been said that Dallas is the “most American city in Texas,” which is reflected in those results. Houston’s similar taste to that of sultry South Florida bolsters the idea that Houston is something of a Caribbean outpost on Texas soil. (Fort Worth is most similar to Oklahoma City, read into that what you will.)
San Antonio joins Austin as an outlier, albeit with a trio of different shows: Adventure Time (created by local hero Pen Ward), Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and The Walking Dead, results that place them in the company of Las Vegas and gritty California towns like Barstow and Fresno.
Along with San Antonio, most South, Southwest, and Far West Texas cities like El Paso, Laredo, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville all also show love for the Kardashians and The Walking Dead (and American Horror Story, The Simpsons, and SpongeBob Squarepants.) Those predilections are shared from the Gulf of Mexico west to the Pacific, wherever there are large Latino populations.
It seems like the Upshot missed a fourth subset of viewers, one that could be called the “Brown Belt.” Generally speaking, Brown Belt towns are least similar to places where Black Belt viewing is most exaggerated: little towns in or near the Mississippi Delta. All of the Texas cities listed above have little-to-no interest in Duck Dynasty. Texas towns where the Robertsons are revered include Tyler, Lufkin, Huntsville, Abilene, Amarillo, and San Angelo. In other words, deep East Texas, northwest Texas, and the Panhandle. (But not Lubbock, where there is a mixed Brown / Black Belt list.)
One more fascinating bit regarding a different reality television show: Fast n’ Loud. Even though the program is centered on Northwest Dallas’s Gas Monkey Garage, residents of the Big D proper turn their noses up at the series, which is also strongly correlated with Trump voters. That show’s in-state popularity begins to swell where DFW’s sprawl is just starting to encroach in rural / ex-urban Northeast Texas, and the Fast n’ Loud love crests there and rolls west to the Panhandle and northward. (Fast n’ Loud is even more unpopular in Houston than it is in Dallas, and there is probably not one Austinite in 20 who has ever sat through a single full episode unironically.)
So there we are: we are who we thought we were. Which is not to say there are no surprises: Can anyone explain that tiny pocket of intense Orange Is the New Black love deep in the heart of rural Texas?