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What the World's Poor Watch on TV

Big in Russia
"Columbo"-Big in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

In 2000, an extremist group in Karachi launched a campaign against un-Islamic practices in Pakistan, where satellite television is popular. The most arresting stunt was the burning of a pile of television sets. The group, Tehrik-e-Insdad Munkirat, declared: “These gadgets are satanic devices that corrupt people and society.” It is not alone in thinking this.

Today, America is threatened by a hatred that is inflamed by its seduction of television audiences across the world. Or so it is often said. “They hate us because they see endless pictures of our rich, sleazy, easy lives in the soap operas shown around the world”—this was a stock in trade of commentators, such as Thomas Friedman, trying to understand the roots of Sept. 11. In the poorest parts of the world, such images are said to have a particularly malign influence.

The ubiquity of images of American life—with its violence and sexual license—is supposed to explain both the revulsion against America and the growing Americanization of the globe. This may seem paradoxical, but it is possible to have a range of responses to the same deluge of images—ranging from hatred to envy to a passionate desire to emulate.

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There is a tendency to assume that the poor—unlike the savvy rich—imbibe what they see wholesale. But the effect in, say, rural Algeria, of a program like “Dallas” is not to create a new cadre of full-blown capitalists bowling through the hammams. Algerians from remote villages are capable of seeing the Texan drama through nostalgic eyes, as representative of a close-knit family and a patriarchal world, which they are losing. The way people respond to the same programs is diverse and surprising; we all bring our own experience to bear on what we see.

Since the 1980s, access to, or ownership of, a television set has grown rapidly throughout Asia and the Arab world. In the villages of Upper Egypt, where the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod conducted a study in the mid-1990s, she found most households had a television set. “Many were simple black-and-white sets with poor reception balanced precariously on rickety shelves in corners of mud-brick rooms. The wealthiest families in the village had large color sets in rooms that boasted religious calligraphy and padded sofas. But on every poor family’s wish list, were they to save enough for a down payment, was a color set.”

While there are still hundreds of millions of people—particularly in Africa—who have never seen a set, television viewing is growing in relation to other technologies. There are, for example, more rural Chinese who have access to cable television than to telephones.

One reason it is difficult to establish the precise number of people with access to a set in the poor world—as James Murdoch, chief executive of STAR TV Group and son of Rupert, told a cable conference in India—is that individual cable subscribers sometimes pass on the service illegally to an entire neighborhood. Moreover, in parts of the developing world, large numbers of people often crowd into one house or cafe to watch television, a factor that is hard to quantify. But from available figures it seems that the number of sets in the world has tripled since 1980, from 550 million to 1.4 billion in 1996, with Asia showing the highest growth from 100 million to 650 million.

Daya Thussu, in Electronic Empires, estimated that 2.5 billion people have regular access to a television in the South (the developing world)—meaning about half the people that live there—which explains why the Western-based media empires have turned their attention to it.

China, with a population of 1.3 billion and one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is clearly a prize market for such corporations. By 1999, China had an estimated 350 million sets—meaning almost all households had access to television in one way or another—and the television audience has increased from just 18 million in 1975 to 540 million in 1985, and to 1 billion in 1995. Television stations have also grown substantially from 30 in 1978 to 980 in 1995. Chinese state television CCTV claims to reach 84 percent of the population, with the number of regular viewers exceeding 900 million.

According to Arthur Andersen, which conducted a study for STAR TV, television reaches only about half of the population of India; 78.9 percent of the urban population and 39.8 percent of the rural population. In total, that is some 80 million television households in India (and probably many more), of which half can get cable or satellite.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the picture is very different. Only 2.5 percent of the world’s televisions are in Africa. Irregular or nonexistent electricity supplies are a common feature of the sub-Saharan landscape, which is an obvious barrier to the growth of television. Many countries have extremely limited power distribution networks, which do not penetrate significantly into rural areas. Only 3.5 percent of sub-Saharan Africans own a television, and a few countries, such as Tanzania, do not have their own state television service.

If figures about access to television sets are inevitably rather vague, it is easier to record the recent explosion in the numbers of channels available. For example, in 1991, there was only one television channel in India; 10 years later there are well over 100. By 1998, most of the leading transnational media companies, such as STAR TV, BBC, Discovery, MTV, Sony, CNN, Disney, and CNBC were all operating in India through cable and satellite.

In 1998, according to Screen Digest, there were more than 2,600 television channels operating in the world, most of them private. What sort of programs are these channels transmitting? Two trends stand out. The first is the growth of entertainment programs in relation to current affairs—such that news programs themselves have often become a form of  “infotainment.” Miss Egypt, for example, now reads the news on Egypt’s Dream TV. In the transition from the Soviet Union to today’s Russia, the broadcasting time for fiction grew by 44 percent (with cartoons up by 176 percent); for entertainment, by 192 percent. Transmission time for information programs fell by 61 percent.

Second, countries in the first stage of globalization tend to experience a wave of Western programming; but in the second and third waves of globalization, local versions of  Western programs or genuinely local programs become more visible. This is also evident in the development of Al-Jazeera, the independent Qatar-based Arab news channel, as well as STAR TV and Zee TV in India and Phoenix TV in China. In all these countries, there is a boom in local programming. Western influence on television should not be underestimated, but it is not as saturating as the proponents of cultural imperialism believe—and while there may be many American soaps filling in the dead times in the afternoon, they are not, in general, the most popular programs.

The most profitable areas of television content for media organizations intent on investing in the developing world are films, soaps, sports, and children’s programs; these transcend barriers of culture and language, unlike news and current affairs, which demand knowledge of local politics and are more likely to be subject to state control. One field of assured success for cable and satellite stations operating in the South is the children’s market, which was neglected by national channels. In 1994, under a quarter of Disney’s US$10.1 billion in revenue came from outside the United States; by 2006, it is aiming to generate half from abroad.

Overall, the most popular multi-country channel in the South is probably MTV, which has contracts with local stations that give it local flavor. But the one that makes the most money is ESPN (Disney’s sports channel), which claims over 120 million subscribers in Asia and 14.5 million in Latin America. Sport—dominated by soccer—has had the greatest expansion of all in the last 10 years.

In the Middle East, the Gulf  War gave a push to the spread of satellite television. The region became a focus for international news agencies. Bahrain, disregarding the impact on Islamic culture, began to rebroadcast CNN 24 hours a day on conventional terrestrial systems, with a booster to allow reception in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

This became a spur to Arab countries to acquire their own satellite systems. Egypt was the first to launch an international broadcasting service for the Arab world when the Egyptian Space Channel (ESC) started transmission on Arabsat at the end of 1990. This was followed by Nile TV, another Egyptian international satellite service, in 1993, and the Middle East Broadcasting Center, run by Saudi Arabians from London. Orbit Satellite—set up by a Saudi group in Rome in 1994—covers all countries in the Middle East and North Africa: It carries 24 television and 24 radio networks including CNN, Disney’s entertainment and sports channels, and the Discovery channel.

In 1997, Orbit Satellite was watched by 3.1 million homes in the Arab world and its diaspora. Meanwhile, in Asia, the Phoenix Chinese Channel is a general entertainment satellite channel with most of its programming in Mandarin. Part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., it was launched in Hong Kong in 1996. It also has a 24-hour movie channel broadcasting Chinese and Western film classics. In 1999, Phoenix claimed to be reaching almost 2 billion people in more than 30 Asian countries, including 47 million households in mainland China.

In India, the national channel Doordarshan has three main competitors—STAR Plus, Zee TV, and the Japanese Sony TV, but there are over 100 others available. Zee is the biggest and increasingly makes programs in Indian languages.

The trend in many television markets is to localize the global, to take a Western format, juggle with it, and produce a Hindi or a Mandarin version. There is, for instance, a Saudi version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” called “Who Will Win the Million?” which is one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular programs.

This has been happening across Asia, Latin America, and Russia. Russian audiences embraced foreign films, serials, and advertising with gusto after the collapse of communism. But soon they began to find old Soviet programs attractive again. So, even with an open-door policy as in Russia, the national did not surrender to the global.

Another example of this localizing phenomenon is Al-Jazeera, which now reaches viewers in more than 20 Arab countries via satellite. Al-Jazeera beams its signal free of charge to most countries, so all that is needed is a dish, which is as common in the Cairo slums as it is in the mansions of Dubai.

Al-Jazeera enjoys a worldwide market share of 35 million viewers; but as the Arab population is about 250 million, it is not as all-pervasive as is sometimes claimed. Yet the point about Al-Jazeera is that it is steeped in Western journalistic values that have been re-crafted in an Arab guise: Its shows have names like “The Opposite Direction” and it has unusually aggressive questioning. Since it grew out of a failed joint venture in 1996 between the BBC and the Saudi company Orbit, this is not surprising; many of the journalists once worked for the BBC.

In the case of India, media empires have had to adjust their strategies to suit the Indian context. STAR TV, which in 1993 was bought by Rupert Murdoch, realized that its mainly U.S.-originated programming was only reaching a tiny, although wealthy, urban audience. It therefore started adding Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films broadcast on its 24-hour channel and dubbing popular U.S. soaps into Hindi. In October 1996, STAR Plus began telecasting programs in English and Hindi. In 1999, it claimed 19 million viewers in India.

Another example of this cultural hybridity is Zee TV, India’s first private Hindi-language satellite channel. Zee was launched in October 1992 and depended initially on recycled programming. It then broke television taboos by broadcasting programs about sex, relationships, and horoscopes. The channel thrives on a mixture of Hindi film, serials, musical countdowns, and quiz contests. Zee’s innovative programming includes news in “Hinglish.” Despite the influence of the English language in India, the biggest media growth is in regional languages. Even U.S. series like “Friends” (known as “Hello Friends”) have been hybridized, although the latter has not been as successful as expected—the lifestyle of the Hyderabadi versions of the New Yorker originals did not settle in the Indian imagination.

The revenge of the local has yet to hit places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the poverty of the region makes it difficult for local channels to make their own programs. Countries such as Cape Verde and Djibouti import more than 90 percent of their programs.

So the picture across the South is mixed, depending on the novelty value of  Western programs, the wealth of the state in question, and the degree of globalization. U.S. programs and distribution systems remain important. And many programs made in the West do strike a chord in unlikely places. These include “Baywatch” (which became very popular in certain parts of India), “Dallas,” “Miami Vice,” and “Columbo” (especially in Russia). And Asia is the biggest market for MTV, with over 135 million households in 23 countries reputedly watching its programs regularly.

Stuart Cunningham of the Queensland University of  Technology agrees that the image of the West at the center dominating the developing world periphery is mistaken. In fact, the world is divided into a number of regions, which each have their own internal dynamics and global ties. These regions are based not only on geography but also on common cultural, linguistic, and historical connections. Latin America markets its programs in Eastern Europe. The Mexican soap “The Rich Also Cry” was very popular in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Egyptian television is popular across the Arab world, while Turkish soaps are watched in Central Asia.

In Latin America, U.S. imports were prominent only in the early stages of mass television. As the industry matured, they were replaced by local products. The pattern in Latin America, as in Asia and the Middle East, is that “each geolinguistic region” is dominated by one or two centers of audiovisual production—Mexico and Brazil for Latin America, Hong Kong for Taiwan and China, Egypt and Lebanon for the Arab world. Zee TV is also now targeting audiences in the rich North, in places such as Britain with large Asian populations.

Media globalization can go into reverse. Under the shah, Iranian national radio and television showed large numbers of U.S. films and soaps. After the revolution in 1979, the media were purged of all Western elements, which in recent years has made Iranians especially interested in foreign satellite channels for news, information, and above all for entertainment. The Islamic Consultative Assembly decreed in 1994 that watching international television was a “sinful act” and banned the manufacture or use of satellite dishes.
 
Nonetheless, many homes in Iran do possess satellite dishes, and the government has increased the number of television networks from two to five in order to compete with international television. But in spite of these efforts, the national broadcasting body is thought to have lost some 67 percent of its audience to foreign competition.

There is no scientific way of measuring the effects of television on behavior or attitudes in either the rich world or the poor world. Quantifying how Western television alters perceptions in the developing world has barely been attempted. Some might claim, for example, that an aggressive interview on Al-Jazeera marks a new rebelliousness in the Arab way of life. But such people come to their conclusions impressionistically.

All manner of goods and bads have been attributed to television. A Peruvian soap opera called “Simplemente Maria” (Simply Maria), for example, was supposed to have made schooling trendy in Lima. Maria, a maid who educated herself with the help of a tutor and who ended up marrying her literacy teacher, was so popular that the military junta rescheduled its meetings to watch the show. Adult literacy is said to have soared in Peru.

Media-influence theorists such as George Gerbner and Larry Gross or Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart have all assumed a significant Western influence carried with Western programming. Dorfman and Mattelart’s seminal book of the 1970s, How to Read Donald Duck, argued that the Disney comics were “carriers” of American capitalist values. Uncle Scrooge, in their reading, is a “device for concealing the organized power of the capitalist class behind the pathetic sentimental solitude of a comic millionaire miser.”

But some of the most interesting microstudies take issue with the assumptions of the cultural imperialists. One such study by Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes was about the impact of “Dallas” on immigrants from Morocco, Russia, and elsewhere in Israel. They organized 50 focus groups with people from different national backgrounds. Even at the basic level of a discussion of what had happened in each episode, they found divergent understandings.

One of the Arabic groups “misread” the program in a way that made it more compatible with their own cultural ethos. When Sue Ellen ran away with her baby to her former lover and his father, the Arab group argued that she had actually gone to live with her own father. This detail, the researchers argued, shows that “texts” do not cross cultural boundaries intact.

In another study, Len Ang wrote about the Dutch and “Dallas.” Ang found that her enjoyment of the show cut against her awareness of its ideological content. In a study of 42 devotees of the Ewing saga, Ang found that each had their own relationship to the program: love of Pamela, exaggerated clothes, the American cities, the awfulness of J.R., being in touch with America, the close family circuit, the “reality” of the program, the “unreality” of the program. She concluded that what appeals to us in such a serial is connected with individual life histories, and the social situation we are each in.

Viewers may well see what they are supposed not to see. An air of unreality was what viewers in Egypt found mesmerizing about the U.S. soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” over the more politicized Egyptian serial “Himmaya Nights.” The British journalist John Lloyd remembers the Russians who, in the years before glasnost, watched Soviet propaganda featuring the baleful poverty in the streets of the West: They gazed, he noted, not at the beggars in the foreground, but at the luxury shops, brimming with Rolex watches and haute couture behind them. The poverty of the beggars was familiar to them; it was the riches that caught their eye.

And there are those who are inured to television and see only what is akin to their own experience. Reflecting on the impact of an Egyptian political drama, “Love in a Diplomatic Pouch,” Lila Abu-Lughod noticed how villagers of Upper Egypt ignored the aspects of the program that were not part of their experience. They picked up on the moral message of the serial, the importance of the mother’s role in raising her children.

But they ignored the men who could not commit themselves to marry for fear of losing their freedom. She wrote, “The villagers were an elusive target for the cultural elite’s modernizing messages.”

These divergent observations are neither systematic nor exhaustive. But they do at least puncture the simple view of the impact of  Western television. Some people watch television and relax, others become agitated, some notice
the familiar, and others notice only the unfamiliar.

To conduct a scientific study to measure the impact of  Western television—to understand, for example, what real impact “Baywatch” has had on viewing communities in Tehran—it would be necessary to observe the whole individual, and to take into account a host of other personal and political factors.

To make potential research even more complicated, it is also possible to absorb things unconsciously. And it is likely that the more television you watch, the more resistant you are to any impact. Perhaps it is no wonder that this kind of research is rarely attempted anymore.

Television, then, may influence us in many ways, and none. We should recall, as Virginia Woolf put it, that each individual is at least 28 selves. Television merely creates a 29th.

The author makes documentaries for television and is an adviser to a new museum about empire in Bristol, England.

 


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