Celebrities are vital to society

Staged politics

Kathrin Kaschura

To person

M.A., born 1969; Project manager at "WEB for ALL" - project for accessibility in the Internet (Heidelberg), Sommergasse 119, 69469 Weinheim.
Email: [email protected]

How do television viewers perceive politicians' appearances in personality talks? The study presented here shows the entire spectrum of individual perception, normative evaluation and emotional impact.


Politicians want to reach as many people as possible and convince them of their political views. They have to be known if they are to be elected. To do this, they need media presence. In order to be presented as often and advantageously as possible, they are based on the selection criteria of the media and professionalize their political communication. One possible strategy of political actors to increase their attractiveness in public is to adapt to the requirements of mass media entertainment.

Conversational television programs play a special role here. Jens Tenscher speaks of "political talk shows" in this context and describes two trends that can be observed and which influence one another: firstly, the growing range of entertainment programs, and secondly, the increasing willingness and competence of political actors to present themselves in these formats. [1] This also includes appearances in personality talks, in which politicians and other celebrities talk about personal matters and present themselves as private individuals. This format is primarily used to represent well-known personalities from various areas of society.

As a rule, the guests are asked one after the other about personal and amusing matters. [2] Due to the restrained moderation and the relaxed, friendly overall atmosphere, politicians are offered a special forum for their self-expression. The "human conversation" is in the foreground, political topics are conveyed more indirectly. [3] Political distance is part of the program. It's about gaining mass media attention for yourself. Politicians want to convey sympathy and empathy, show their personal integrity, demonstrate skills and gain trust. Politics is popularized in this way. This strategy is linked with the hope of being able to reach the broadest possible target group and people with little political interest even in times of an increasingly fragmented audience.

The development of a professionalized policy communication, in which entertainment aspects take up more and more space, is assessed differently in the scientific discussion. From a normative-democratic-theoretical perspective, it is feared that voting decisions are mainly influenced by non-political, non-political characteristics of politicians. There is a risk that politics will no longer be conveyed in an argumentative and problem-oriented manner, but rather more emotionally and impact-centered. [4] Proponents of this kind of policy communication, on the other hand, are of the opinion that citizens need to find out more about their elected representatives than can be derived directly from political contexts. They assume that politically disinterested people can also be reached and activated with this type of political communication.

Research interest and method

Regardless of a not inconsiderable audience response, the scientific discussion about the effects of amalgamating entertainment and politics is largely theoretical. There is still too little empirical data on the use and effect of entertainment strategies by political actors. These considerations served as the basis for the 2004 study Politicians as Celebrities. [5] The aim of the study was to reconstruct the motives for reception and the effects of appearances by politicians in personality talks. The focus was on questions of personal understanding and individual motives for the reception of politicians' appearances.

The decision not to carry out a quantitative, but a qualitative study had different reasons. When asked about the perception of the recipients, the focus is on them as experts in their living environment, their attitudes and feelings. It is not about the frequency of observed phenomena, but about the quality and the definition of a framework to define a field of research that can be found in social reality. Qualitative surveys also have the advantage that they can provide interesting results where quantitative surveys struggle with socially desirable answers. Who would admit in a standardized survey that they are more interested in the private lives of politicians than in party programs? Furthermore, up to this point in time there were no findings on the subjective experience of politicians' appearances in personality talks or on individual reception motives. The range of opinions and attitudes was therefore not known. The decision in favor of a quantitative approach would have meant examining the people questioned using a research grid, which runs the risk of failing to precisely capture the "differentiation of social objects". [6]

To answer the research question "How do television viewers perceive political appearances in personality talks?" Interviews were conducted with people who, as the above illustration shows, differ greatly from one another in terms of their socio-demographic characteristics of age, gender and level of formal education. A total of thirteen guided individual interviews were carried out between September 10 and 29, 2004. The duration varied between 28 and 50 minutes. The focus of the survey was in the Heidelberg, Mannheim and Weinheim area.

At the beginning of the interviews, excerpts from two personality talks were shown, which were chronologically cut onto a video tape. It was about Angela Merkel on the Beckmann show and Franz M√ľntefering and daughter Mirjam on the People at Maischberger show. Afterwards, each interview began with the identically posed, general question: And how does that affect you? The further course of the conversation was shaped by taking up the topics raised by the interviewees and by asking questions.

Analysis of the interviews

The aim of the qualitative analysis was to show similarities and differences in the attitudes and opinions of the recipients towards appearances by politicians in personality talks. The interviews were evaluated in several steps. Following the categorization of the data material, a characterizing presentation of the individual cases followed, which at the same time presented an interpretation of the data collected. This analysis step served the reconstruction of subjective motives of reception or non-reception as well as the individual effect of politicians' appearances. In a further step, methods of comparing cases, contrasting cases and creating types were used. These aim to reduce the complexity of the object of investigation, whereby connections become more clearly apparent.

This process serves to stimulate the formation of hypotheses "beyond general causal relationships and contexts of meaning". [7] As a conclusion to this analysis step and the central result, the formation and presentation of four ideal-type users or non-users of politicians' appearances in personality talks was carried out. Max Weber coined the concept of the ideal type in the social sciences. He understands it to be a conceptual "construction" or a "synthesis", which in its "conceptual purity [...] cannot be empirically found anywhere in reality". [8] The ideal type is consequently an abstraction from actually existing individual phenomena, which are formulated in a pointed manner, whereby the peculiarity of the individual case is contained and explained. For this purpose, the best possible case is selected from the groupings that can be considered representative. With its help, individual characteristic features are pointedly represented and ideally pointed. [9]

Characterization of the educated types

First of all, it can be stated that the heterogeneity of the respondents is largely due to individual norms and values, emotions towards the television people and personal needs. These result in a positive, ambivalent or negative assessment of the genre and thus also of politicians' appearances in personality talks and the topics expected there. Reception or non-reception is therefore initially dependent on the individual preferences of the respondents. In a further step of analyzing and comparing the data, it was possible to classify the statements of the respondents, that is, to assign them to four different types, ranging from active to potential users to non-users of personality talks. In addition to the patterns of reception, another important feature has emerged: the impact of a politician's appearance depends to a large extent on whether it is assessed as authentic or untrustworthy. This assessment depends, among other things, on knowledge about the staging of such performances.

Within the scope of the examined sample, no respondents could be identified who categorically reject the use of personality talks, but at the same time consider politicians' appearances to be credible. In addition, it was not possible to identify any respondents to whom appearances by politicians in personality talks seem implausible and who nevertheless use them with a certain regularity.

The critically distanced one

Viewed ideally, the critically distant person is characterized above all by categorical rejection and a negative assessment of the genre. He justifies this attitude normatively. He is not interested in private, personal stories from celebrities and usually evades their reception. He generally watches very little television and only watches it in a goal-oriented manner. Television can also fulfill an entertainment function for him, but then he turns to other formats such as movies. When he watches politicians appearing in personality talks, it is factual, unemotional and with critical distance. The critically distant person finds the mix of politics and entertainment problematic. He would like a strict separation of professional and private roles in the representation of political actors in public. He prefers political information without entertaining elements and is aware that such appearances are staged by both the media and political actors. That is why he finds politicians and their private and human stories to be untrustworthy in entertaining contexts.

The enthusiastic

The ideal type of enthusiast is interested in politics, but is not looking for information, but entertainment on television. When he sees politicians in personality talks, he wants to hear private information and is interested in people. On the other hand, he evades the reception of political information broadcasts. It is important to the enthusiastic that personality talks are exciting and that they satisfy their curiosity and thirst for sensation at least occasionally. He hopes for surprising moments, embarrassing situations for the political actors and personal revelations. This criterion also plays a role for him, among other things, because he likes to talk about personality talks: He loves gossip, and not only in relation to political actors. This type is characterized by a strong emotional relationship with moderators and talk show guests as well as a high level of empathy and willingness to identify. Although he is aware of the staging, he considers appearances by politicians in personality talks to be credible and ascribes a high degree of authenticity to them. That is why the reception of these formats also offers him the benefit of political orientation and information. They help him to understand and understand political decisions. For example, they complement his image of politicians and consolidate his personal impression of their political competencies. Furthermore, the reception of such appearances helps him to confirm his political opinion and to keep track of which topics and actors are currently determining the political discussions. Among other things, he uses this information specifically for his voting decision. He does not feel tied to a fixed party, but decides at short notice and person-oriented who to vote. He is not interested in the party program, but his personal impression, his sympathy or antipathy towards the candidates are decisive for his choice.

Skeptics in search of entertainment

Viewed ideally, this type is formally highly educated and not only very interested in politics, but also comprehensively informed. From his point of view, appearances by politicians in personality talks have no political information content whatsoever. He is critical of the genre because he is of the opinion that appearances by politicians in entertaining contexts contribute to the disinformation of the broader population. He makes his voting decision purely party-oriented and factual. Due to his in-depth political knowledge, he does not need any personalization in order to understand political decisions. In general, however, he is one of the recipients of personality talks. He likes the mix of entertainment and information, with a clear focus on the entertaining aspects. Despite his skepticism, he openly admits that he is curious and interested in unexpected, surprising elements in a personality talk. It is important to him that he learn something about private people. He enjoys the "homestory", but at the same time clearly separates professional and private roles and does not use the information received to ascribe political competence. This user is aware of the staged character of politicians' appearances in personality talks and also knows the motives of political actors to reveal something about themselves in entertainment-oriented formats. However, he considers the stories presented to be credible. Since his main interest lies in finding out more about the human, private side of politicians, the staged character of the programs doesn't bother him.

Skeptics looking for information

This ideal type adopts a critical and distant stance towards politicians appearing in personality talks. He considers the mixing of entertainment and political information to be problematic. He receives personality talks primarily from the point of view of the information function. They do not fulfill an entertaining function for him. In contrast to the critically distant, he already has the experience that personal and private information can be used by politicians to supplement his images. They help him, for example, to better understand political decisions. Nevertheless, he draws a clear dividing line between role-related and role-remote characteristics. He considers appearances of politicians in personality talks to be a show that is motivated solely by reaching certain target groups and groups of voters. From his point of view, politicians increase their awareness with such appearances in order to be more successful. Consequently, his reception is also characterized by the fact that he finds the appearances in personality talks unreliable and ascribes little authenticity to them.

Conclusion and outlook

With the help of this typification, the following picture emerges: Recipients are actively and selectively looking for media content that promises them certain gratuities and thus a specific television life. Even if the results of this analysis are not representative due to the number of cases and therefore cannot be generalized, they clearly show that one and the same program can fulfill different functions for heterogeneous types of viewers. It is noticeable that the respondents do not split into the different types based on their socio-demographic characteristics. Rather, other variables, the origin of which can be found in psychological and social contexts, seem to exert a more significant influence. However, due to the small number of respondents, an influence of socio-demographic characteristics cannot be ruled out in principle. Here there are starting points for more comprehensive investigations.

Overall, the results confirm that the distinction between entertainment and information is formal and communicator-oriented. It is not relevant from the recipient's point of view. From the TV makers' point of view, personality talks are primarily aimed at entertainment. The empirical results show, however, that for a not inconsiderable proportion of the respondents, both entertainment and information needs and thus also needs for political orientation are met with the reception of politicians' appearances in personality talks. The weighting varies, but many of the respondents experience entertainment and information at the same time. This is particularly evident with regard to the enthusiastic type, for whom political information and entertainment are not opposites, but rather belong together. The mix of private / personal and politics is what makes him so attractive to deal with political issues at all.

As a further result of this investigation it can be stated that the chances of the media effect of politicians in personality talks unfold depending on the subjective expectations of benefits and the assignments of meaning by the recipients. In the individual case analyzes it could be shown that viewers experience politicians appearances in personality talks in a variety of ways. They make their decision for a certain medium and a certain media content on the basis of specific needs, gratification expectations, assignments of meaning and, last but not least, individual values. Relevant inherent influencing factors have proven to be normative attitudes towards the genre personality talk, attitudes and emotions with regard to political actors in general or towards specific politicians, the degree of political interest and the functions of television in the everyday life of the respondents. But situational factors, such as the time at which such formats are broadcast or the family situation during their broadcast, also play a role in reception. The respondents unanimously named the following points as decisive for their interest: the person of the moderator, the respective talk show guest, specific statements that arouse their attention while zapping, as well as topics that were just mentioned and of interest to them.

Politicians who present themselves from their private, human side in personality talks are prepared to do so, among other things, because they believe that with the help of such formats and the privatization of politics, in particular, people who are not politically interested can be reached. This is a widespread view in the scientific literature, but there is a lack of empirical evidence. Politically disinterested people have little and mostly unsystematic political knowledge. With one exception, all interviewees stated that they did not specifically select personality talks. You decide at short notice and guided by interests when zapping about reception or non-reception. The following hypothesis can be derived from these considerations: If personality talks are received solely out of inclination and interest, then the target group of those with little political interest will not be reached, or only to a modest extent, through appearances by politicians in this format. This is another interesting starting point for representative studies.

None of the respondents received politicians' appearances in personality talks uncritically or naively and could thus be judged as "underage" recipients. Mass media content is not simply adopted, but interpreted and checked against one's own background knowledge. All respondents are aware of the staged character and the mutual dependence on mass media and politics, albeit in different ways.