Global Television and Multiple Layers of Identity

by: Joseph D. Straubhaar / University of Texas-Austin

Global Media
Global Media

Researchers discussing the flow of television differ on whether the flow is becoming more globalized. Hollywood certainly continues to export massive amounts of TV programming, as Miller (2001) observes, and regional satellite/cable television channels are predominantly filled with Hollywood’s TV output (Duarte and Straubhaar 2004). However, within the Arab world, Asia and Latin America, at least, many television programs and satellite channels are increasingly produced and sold within the cultural-linguistic region (Sinclair, Jacka et al. 1996). Many nations also continue to produce much of their own television programming, particularly for prime time (Straubhaar, Fuentes et al. 2003). And some number of non-Hollywood television programs, like Latin American telenovelas, have been flowing globally for over a decade, although the scale and impact of this remains controversial (Biltereyst and Meers 2000).

Less clear is how these programs and channels are received. Flows are becoming more complex, producing more varied choices. So what do audiences choose and why? Can we relate their choices to their sense(s) of identity, who they think they are and what they are interested in?

In 1991, I made a first stab at theorizing this with cultural proximity. People would tend to prefer television programming from their own culture, given a choice (Straubhaar 1991). This theoretical prediction seems to have been borne out empirically, in part. More nations, or sizeable cultural minorities, like U.S. Hispanics or Canadian Quebecois, are producing programs for sizeable audiences that seem to prefer them. The television news in Variety usually shows national or “local” programs getting higher ratings than most imports. The top ten television programs tend to be local, for example. In fact, some scholars fear that national cultural proximity has gone almost too far. Buonanno (2004) finds that European nations are producing an increasing amount of their own national television fiction, importing a lot (about half on average) from the U.S., but importing little from their neighbors in Europe.

This brings up two problems with cultural proximity. One is that while some countries import television programs and channels from their neighbors, demonstrated by the popularity of Al-Jazeera throughout the Arab world or the popularity in much of Latin America of imported telenovelas from other Latin American countries, others do not. East Asian countries have only recently begun to import much television from each other, although fads like the recent popularity of Korean drama in other East Asian countries may indicate a changing trend. European countries tend to import relatively little from each other, as Buonanno regrets. We need to do more research and theory-building on what qualities of culture are shared between regional neighbors or countries related by language and culture, as does Iwabuchi’s book on Japanese cultural exports to Asia (2002).

Another major problem is the continued popularity almost everywhere of at least a few U.S. television programs. Even a highly self-sufficient television producer such as Brazil still finds a substantial audience for a few U.S. hits, like The Simpsons. U.S. television is no longer hegemonic in the way it was in the early 1970s, when Nordenstreng and Varis found that most countries imported most of their television from the U.S. (1974). However, U.S. television programs’ popularity still reflects that U.S. popular culture has become almost everyone’s “second culture,” according to Gitlin (2001).

One way to think through these issues of complex flow and highly varied reception is to think about audiences’ identities and interests (and viewing choices) as multiple, not singular. Despite much of the work on multiplicity of identity done by a number of currents in cultural studies, notably the work on hybridity (Bhahba 1994; Canclini 1995), we don’t always apply these ideas to cultural identities and choices expressed in television viewing.

My ongoing interviewing in Brazil and with U.S. Latinos in Austin is beginning to point to multiple levels of identity and interest that manifest themselves in media choices. Almost everyone I interview has a strong local sense of identity. When the economics of production make local programs possible, as with U.S. local television news, these programs tend to be popular, meeting this expressed sense of local identity and interest. People usually also have a strong sense of state, province or region, which television most often does not engage (with somewhat rare exceptions like programming in Quebec), but music frequently does. Keep your eye on this space!

People I interview also tend to continue in these global times to have a strong sense of national identity, which television seems to continue to fit very well. Brazilians go so far as to say that television has a “nationalizing vocation” to bring diverse cities and regions together as a national audience. That certainly fits the agenda of most national governments, as well as most broadcast networks (who tend to have national licenses and nationally-oriented production structures) and advertisers (who still tend to plan national campaigns).

U.S. television has its place in this constellation of cultural identity and preference, particularly in certain genres. I am not really sure whether U.S. culture is truly everyone’s second culture in a general way, or whether the U.S. simply continues to dominate certain genres, such as feature films (which fill convenient niches on almost all television networks almost everywhere), action adventures and cartoons, to such a degree that the U.S. is the familiar producer of such products that both audiences and programmers tend to fall back on. Thinking of the U.S.’s role in specific genre terms helps us understand where global challenges may come from, too. Japan now challenges the U.S. in animation in many markets, just as Hong Kong challenges it somewhat in action adventure and Brazil and Mexico in soap opera in a number of regional markets.

It seems that people have layers of identity and interest that correspond to genre more than any specific cultural geography of production. My interviews (as well as the ratings) show the rise of a transnational audience for documentaries of various types, for example. A growing middle class in many places wants more programs that are both educational and entertaining, so a global set of documentary styles reflecting that of the BBC, the Japanese NHK, National Geographic, Discovery and others seems to be the fastest growing set of genre channels on many satellite/cable TV systems.

In sum, let’s kill the assumption, often lingering beneath the surface, that identity is singular, a zero sum game of marketing convenience, which still tries to lump all U.S. Hispanics together, for example. Let us begin to think of multiple receptions for multiple interests and identities. However, remember that some layers of television, most often national ones, tend to be pre-eminent in their political power to engage and reinforce key layers of identity, such as nationalism. Let’s try to see how this complex interplay works in very different sites and situations around the world.

Works Cited

Bhahba, H. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Biltereyst, D. and P. Meers 2000. “The International Telenovela Debate and the Contra-flow Argument.” Media, Culture and Society 22 (393-413).

Buonanno, M. 2004. “Alem da Proximidade Cultural: Não Contra a Identidade mas a favor de alteridade (Beyond Cultural Proximity: Not Against Identity but in Favor of Alterity). Telenovela – Internacionalização e interculturalidade. M. I. Vassallo de Lopes. São Paulo, Edições Loyola: 331-360.

Canclini, N. G. (1995). Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Duarte, L. G. and J. Straubhaar (2004). “Adapting U.S. Transnational Television Channels to a Complex World: from Cultural Imperialism to Localization to Hybridization.” Transnational Television Worldwide. J. Challaby. New York/London: I.B. Tauris.

Gitlin, T. (2001). Media unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Miller, T. (2001). Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute.

Nordenstreng, K. and T. Varis (1974). Television Traffic A One-Way Street. Paris: UNESCO.

Sinclair, J. S., E. Jacka, et al. (1996). Peripheral Vision: New Patterns in Global Television. J. Sinclair, E. Jacka and S. Cunningham. New York: Oxford University Press. 1-15.

Straubhaar, J. (1991). “Beyond Media Imperialism: Asymmetrical Interdependence and Cultural Proximity.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication (8). 1-11.

Straubhaar, J., M. Fuentes, et al. (2003). National and Regional TV Markets and TV Program Flows. San Diego: International and Development Communication division, International Communication Association.

Image Credits:
1. Global Media

TV Globo
Television from around the world

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