New Jersey and Nation in Tune with The Sopranos

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If Tony Soprano's fate were a democratic affair he might live to tell more tales. According to a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind, New Jerseyans who watch the show are perfectly in tune with out-of-state watchers, preferring that Tony survive the end of the television series.  By a 2-to-1 margin in New Jersey (43%-21%) as well as nationally (40%-21%), Soprano followers give Tony the thumbs up.  And those who have watched many episodes are twice as likely as more casual viewers to prefer that he live—though there is disagreement about how he should live, with views split among continuing as a mobster, going to jail, turning honest and other ideas.

“Tony would seem to be the poster child for the death penalty” said Dr. Gary Radford, professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University and editor of The Atlantic Journal of Communication. “Perhaps they see a glimmer of goodness in him. Perhaps they identify with his constant struggle to keep his family and his business together in the jungle that is mob life.”

New Jersey is watching The Sopranos more often than the rest of the country: three out of five (60%) say they have watched the show but three of five nationally (59%) say they have never seen it.  Those New Jerseyans who watch the show are also more likely to report than the rest of the country that they've watched “many episodes” over the years (54-30%).

Nine of 10 watchers in New Jersey (90%) know the show is set in their own state, but outside the state little more than half of Soprano watchers (56%) correctly identify the Garden State as Tony's stomping grounds.  Both of those figures are substantially increased from 2001 when only 63% of New Jerseyans knew their state was home to the show, and 34% nationally.  Those in the Northeastern states (excluding New Jersey) are far more likely than viewers from other regions to finger New Jersey as the home of the mob show.

Garden Staters (55%) and out-of-staters (60%) agree the show is “just a story” though many have their doubts: 29% of Jersey watchers say it's “telling the truth” as do one in five out-of-state. Still others are just not sure whether it's truth or fiction (16% in-state and 20% out-of-state).  New Jersey seniors in particular are less likely than younger viewers to concede it's “just a story.” Only 46% over the age of 60 say it's “just a story.”  At the same time, a majority of liberals (70%) say it's “just a story” but only half of moderates (48%) and half of conservatives (49%) agree.

New Jersey watchers are a little more tolerant of the show's sharp edges than out-of-staters.  New Jerseyans are more likely to disagree than agree with charges that the show is too sexually explicit, has excessive violence, glorifies organized crime or portrays Italian-Americans in a negative way. “After all, these are normal and expected characteristics of Tony Soprano's world,” added Radford.

Still, Professor William Roberts, chair of Fairleigh Dickinson's Public Administration Institute and author of several books on modern Italian history commented that “The Sopranos certainly showcased some of the best talent in the profession. However, the show helped to perpetuate one of the more problematic and stereotypical images of Italian-Americans.” He added that “both Italian and Italian-American cultures have much more diverse and interesting heritages than the American public generally realizes.”

Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind polls of 776 randomly selected voters nationwide and 602 New Jersey voters were conducted simultaneously from May 29 through June 3 and have margins of error of +/- 3.5 and +/-4 percentage points respectively.

Extended commentary by Professor Gary Radford (Ph.D. Rutgers University) who is editor of The Atlantic  Journal of Communication, professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the author of several books including On the Philosophy of Communication.  Dr. Radford can be reached at 973.267.7996.

The survey reveals a surprising sympathy for the lead character, Tony Soprano. Despite a fully-documented seven-year career of murder, deceit, adultery, and just about every other human vice imaginable (drinking, drugs, gambling), the majority of the survey's respondents say they would like to see Tony emerge from the final episode alive. In fact, all indications suggest that the final episode should be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, leaving us with a stage littered with dead bodies, including Tony's and Phil Leotardo, boss of the New York Family, with perhaps a single good-souled narrator trying to salvage some sense or goodness from the carnage.

Tony would seem to be the poster child for the death penalty. Tony's crimes are many, varied, and extreme. He feels and expresses no remorse, even after the murder of family members (such as Christopher and Adrianna) or valued members of his crew (Pussy). Dr. Melphi refuses to see him as a patient anymore, concluding, perhaps, that Tony is using their counseling sessions as a means to practice and sharpen his lying skills. It is difficult to find any redeeming qualities at all in Tony. One might say he is loyal to his family, but his constant unfaithfulness to Carmela and his harsh and unsympathetic treatment of his depressed son A.J. give lie to this potential virtue.

Yet the majority want Tony to live. Perhaps they see a glimmer of goodness in him. Perhaps they identify with his constant struggle to keep his family and his business together in the jungle that is mob life. Perhaps they can see his point of view as he suffocates Christopher or contemplates the assassination of Paulie, his life-long partner-in-crime, on board a fishing boat in Miami. It all makes sense from a certain point of view, and our identification with Tony reveals to us, if only for the hour in which we watch the episode, a world in which the heinous acts carried out on a routine basis have a legitimate place and purpose.

This conclusion is supported by other survey data which show that the majority of respondents do not agree with the criticisms of the show's sexually explicit scenes, graphic violence, or vulgar language. After all, these are normal and expected characteristics of Tony Soprano's world. However, if we consider the fact that a considerable percentage of respondents also believe that The Sopranos is "telling the truth," or are unsure of whether the show is telling the truth or not, then we can also reach the frightening conclusion that some people believe Tony's world to be part of the real world. For these people, as the final episode approaches and Tony's fate is finally revealed, it might be time, like Tony, to go to the mattresses.

Contact: Peter Woolley 973.670.3239 or Dan Cassino 973.896.7072

Dr. William Roberts can be reached at (201) 692-7176.

For more information, please call (973) 443-8661.

Copyright © 2007, Fairleigh Dickinson University. All rights reserved. FDU PublicMind Poll [Latest update 070606]