Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens)–Part 2

by: Joan Hawkins/Indiana University, Bloomington

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 opened on June 25, 2004, I was in Hettinger, North Dakota, visiting my mother. I had to drive to Bison, South Dakota (approximately 42 miles away) to pack up her old apartment, and thought I would take a long detour, go to Rapid City and see the film—maybe hit Starbucks on the way back. According to The Rapid City Journal, however, there were no screenings of Moore’s movie planned for Rapid City. The Carmike Theater had refused to book Fahrenheit 911, and neither of the other two theaters had picked it up. “Is it in Bismarck?” my husband asked. Not in Bismarck either. It turned out that for people living in the Dakotas or Wyoming, there was only one place to see Fahrenheit 911 the week it opened—Fargo, North Dakota.[1]

So, on June 27, 2004, Skip and I took a break from mom-care, drove 361 miles to Fargo, and joined movie goers from three states to watch what had become for us a truly renegade film. The audience was appreciative and politely clapped as the movie concluded. “Did you know all that?” I heard a woman ask her companion, as we left the theater. “No, I did not,” he said softly. “Guess we’ll have to bite the bullet and get a dish.”

Dish Penetration Figures

According to a GAO Report, dated April 2005, Direct Broadcast Satellite penetration rates were “higher in rural areas than in suburban and urban areas throughout the 2001-2005 period. In 2001, penetration rates were highest in rural areas at 25.6 percent, followed by 13.9 percent in suburban areas and 8.6 percent in urban areas. As of January 2004, DBS penetration remained the highest in rural areas, growing to about 29 percent, while it grew to 18 percent of suburban households and 13 percent of urban households.”[2] By 2006 Direct Broadcast Satellite had become “the dominant provider of video services in rural America,” outpacing cable.[3]

In the specific region I came to know so well, the penetration ratio is slightly lower: 21.16% in North Dakota and 20.86% in South Dakota. This is largely due to the depressed economy. Only 47.25% of North Dakota households has cable. This is a shockingly small percentage given how difficult it is to get TV reception without it (see Dish Towns Part One).

But this is also an area of the country where people—even people with “good” positions—typically work two or three jobs. At the Hillcrest Care Center where my mother lived, most of the staff had supplemental employment elsewhere. One aide assisted at the neighboring hospital and waitressed at Peppy’s, when she wasn’t helping the infirm at Hillcrest. My mother’s favorite caretaker worked at Hillcrest only on weekends, because she taught at the local high school and coached women’s athletics for pay during the week. The Social Worker in Charge of Resident Services at Hillcrest moonlighted as a bartender at the Pastime Steakhouse; the lady in charge of billing also made me margaritas at the Pastime. And virtually everyone I met in the West River area tried to “pick up a little extra” during the Harley-Davidson bike rally held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota. The Upper Plains States are, as President Bush remarks in Moore’s most recent film Sicko (2007), “uniquely American.” People work long hard hours in multiple jobs to make ends meet, and they frequently have little money left over for the kinds of services that many of us consider essential—services like communication.

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

Dish Towns

Given the depressed economy of the region, 21% DBS penetration is remarkable. And, as I argued in Dish Towns Part One, it is necessary if residents are to maintain some kind of link with the dominant culture. This is an area of the country where cable is expensive and where residents typically pay more for fewer channels than they do elsewhere. Radio reception is poor, and access to in-depth national and international news coverage is extremely limited. In the areas where people have computer access, the web is available. But even residents who have good internet service need to know what to search for online, in order to get any real information. In large areas of the country cell phone use is impossible and web access is inadequate. And as I argued in Part One of this series, it isn’t only special interest indie films which have restricted release in this country. In rural areas where saturation booking is a common practice, and where towns typically have a single one-screen movie theater, many contemporary mainstream films can be seen only online, at home, or by special arrangement.

As stated in Part One, I have called the sparsely-populated enclaves of farmhouses and small town dwellings that pepper the Upper Plains States “dish towns” specifically in order to link them to the immigrant Dish Cities, described by Hamid Naficy and others. In some ways, of course, this is a hyperbolic comparison. White rural populations who live in the Upper Plains have not left home under dire circumstances and traveled to a strange country, where they are cut off from family, friends, and their own history. They are not “deterritorialized” in the way, Naficy argues, exiles are.[4]

But rural populations do occupy the status of “Other” in this country and, like the Iranian exiles whom Naficy interviews, their assimilation into the “host” culture is “neither total or irreversible” (p. 86). This is most tangibly signaled through the commodity-rationing to which they are subjected, particularly in the realms of technology and media. It is also signaled, however, in the content of the media they receive—content which always seems to speak to rural residents in a different voice about things that are often of no immediate concern to them.

In 2002, shortly after my mother moved back to Bison, South Dakota, I sat on the floor of her tiny apartment watching the breaking news on the Michael Skakel murder trial. Skakel had murdered Martha Moxley in 1975, when they were both 15 years old. He was Robert Kennedy’s nephew (by marriage) and the trial had garnered a great deal of news coverage as a result. It also fascinated because of the difficulty in sentencing an adult man for a crime committed when he was a juvenile offender. Would he receive the lighter juvenile sentence or would he be sentenced as an adult?

As Mom and I sat on the floor together, drinking coffee and watching Good Morning, America, I happened to glance up through the dormer windows of her apartment. Outside on an unpaved road, two trucks had pulled up beside each other. The drivers were talking about the falling price of corn, disastrous in a community where corn is a staple crop and where a terrible drought had already hit the farmers hard. And for the first time in my life, I realized that nothing I habitually saw on television reflected the reality I had been observing for two weeks in that community. By the same token, until I drove across the country and saw the land, I had very little real idea about how the populations of several states actually live.

In that sense, it seems to me that Dish Towns U.S.A are located in the kind of continuously “liminal” space that Naficy theorizes for immigrant cultures. They are located in a kind of “slipzone” where a “home” grass-roots culture and a host national culture “overlap and slide over and under and past each other” (p.86). The fact that this “host” national culture belongs to the country in which rural citizens were born,and that they need a satellite dish to even access it, is something we media scholars must consider when we speak of audience.

Special Thanks to Chris Anderson, David Coon, and Skip Hawkins.
Dish Towns Parts One and Two are dedicated to my mother, Theresa Berning–a hard-working woman if ever there was one—in memoriam.

[1] For more on this, see William Rivers Pitt, “Thank You, Michael Moore”

[2] Government Accountability Office Report to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate. “Telecommunications: Direct Broadcast Subscribership Has Grown Rapidly, but Varies Across Different Types of Markets.” GAO-050257 (April 2005) pg 7

[3] Linda Moss, “DBS Rules Rural America.” Multichannel News, NO, Volume 00, Issue 00 (Jan 30, 2006) Factiva database.

[4] See Hamid Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization.” Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged Otherness and the. Ed Hamid Naficy and Teshome H. Gabriel. USA, Switzerland et al: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. pp. 85-116. Subsequent citations given in the text.

Image Credits:

1. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

2. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.

One comment

  • What is the solution to the problem of news coverage that fails to address real-life concerns of rural citizens? More local production of local news? Even this solution might not work, given that these areas are often lacking sufficient antenna-broadcasting capabilities or high-speed internet. Furthermore, the sheer scale of space involved might make it impossible to cover anything but the major cities across the Northern Plains.

    This is perhaps another instance where free broadband Internet access in every home would have a tremendous impact — it would allow not only for greater access amongst residents, but also enable small-scale production of news reports that could then be shared via an online news channel, circumventing the existing problems almost entirely.

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