Question Day: Political Ads in the Age of Netflix

How will users of streaming video get their politics?
Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Great question from Gpack3:

I rarely see ads on TV, let alone political ads, because I only watch TV through Amazon and Netflix and the like. Suppose present trends continue to the point where on demand TV services like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes completely eclipse traditional advertising-supported broadcast television. How does this change how political campaigns are conducted and funded?

There are two ways to think about this. One is voter effects, and my guess is that they will be very slim. Advertisers will figure out how to get ads in front of viewers -- whether it's on phones, TVs, games or whatever else -- and the campaigns will continue to do what they've done for the past half century or so. The potentially bigger change could come from the movement to use sophisticated methods to improve electioneering in general, which are mostly centered around get-out-the-vote efforts. But that probably only will produce a healthy arms race that gives neither side a long-term advantage.

Then there are the effects on parties. Here, it's worth mentioning that the transformation from 19th century mobilization to 20th century broadcast advertising entailed an internal party shift away from large numbers of low-skilled workers and toward high-skilled specialists. There's a school of thought suggesting that this shift was important in terms of who the parties represented, and who politicians worked for once they were in office. If, for whatever reason, 21st century campaigning turns out to value large-scale volunteer armies, could that change the parties in unpredictable ways? Maybe. But that's unlikely to occur. Moreover, it also matters what kinds of rewards those volunteer armies want. It's one thing if they demand direct material benefits (such as low-skill government jobs), it's something else if they have public policy demands.

For the most part, however, the demise of the broadcast and cable TV advertising model of campaigning won't matter much. But it is worth keeping an eye on.

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