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Voting Alone? The Political and Cultural Consequences of Commercial TV

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Document pages: 62 pages

Abstract: We investigate the long-term impact of early exposure to Berlusconi’s commercial TV network, Mediaset, on voting behavior and civic engagement in Italy. To do so, we exploit differences in Mediaset signal reception across Italian municipalities due to the network’s staggered introduction over the national territory and to idiosyncratic geomorphological factors. We find that municipalities exposed to Mediaset prior to 1985 exhibit greater electoral support for Berlusconi’s party in 1994, when he first ran for office, relative to municipalities that were exposed only later on. This difference, estimated between 1 and 2 percentage points, is extremely robust and tends to persist in the following four elections. This effect can hardly be attributed to differential exposure to partisan news bias since, prior to 1985, content on Mediaset channels was dominated by light-entertainment programs and no news programs were broadcast until 1991, by which time the network was accessible to the entire population. Instead, we present evidence that early exposure to commercial TV was associated with a substantial decline in social capital consistent with the diffusion of a culture of individualism and civic disengagement that favored the political success of Berlusconi.

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