Reflections on Katrina in Brazil

I think I know where I am. To my university, I am in the Amazon, land of myth and enchanted Edens, in the words of Candace Slater. To Brazilians, I am in Manaus, home to the eighth largest city nationally and the largest free trade zone in the Americas. To residents, called Manuaras, I spend my time in the peripheries of the city, Jorge Teixeira, Sao Jose Operario, and Compensa. Here, I am interviewing workers, mostly women, who work for television set factories. Outsiders to these neighborhoods cannot imagine where I am aside from the usual stereotypes of jungles and Indians or slums and criminals. When Hurricane Katrina flooded my city of New Orleans and occupied the news media here for more than a week, however, insiders no longer understood where I was from.

old world map

Old World Map

I see the satellite image at the cyber-cafe cross the street from the hotel I have called home for the previous month. The swirls of red and green are moving towards a dislocated peninsula somewhere in the United States. The map seems as foreign to me at that moment as the culture of the city I was calling my temporary home.

There’s a hurricane coming, I tell a group of women casually at a sewing collective for unemployed factory workers. It is the Friday pre-Katrina.

Quizzical responses. You get those a lot, no? That’s just a lot of rain, right? They shrug, reminding me of the way longtime New Orleanians have done the same every rainy season.

I try to punctuate the words. No but it’s so big it could destroy the entire city. More shrugs and perhaps an attempt to sympathize. We get a lot of rain too. You should be here from December to June.

“What did she say?” another asks the room.

Some kind of earthquake in her city, responds the first.


Monday I am at the offices for a local newspaper looking at archive photos for my project. In my selections, workers smile through empty TV cabinets on the assembly line. They will reproduce well, I think to myself. Images seem to cajole us into thinking that we can understand a context anonymously. A journalist asks if he can do a short article on me and Katrina.

“What is a levee?” the novice writer asks.

“It’s like a dam, but it looks like a big hill that protects the city from water.” I don’t know how to translate this word.

Sounds very advanced.

“I’m afraid it won’t work and people will die.”

Are you sure that people will die or just afraid people will die? He is trying to clarify my meaning, but he can’t understand. He faces the computer screen as he types and retypes my words. “But you have no family there.”

“But I have my friends, my work, my house,” I justify.

I went back to the cyber-cafe. Two more levees broke and the city has been filling with water all day.

Tuesday morning the newspaper story takes about one-fifth of a page inside. There is a profile shot of me, tan and smiling, like the women behind the TV cabinets. The article read, “She had no family here.” His notes meant that I was not really from there.


The beginning of the week and New Orleans news now dominates Brazilian media over reports of widespread government corruption. Our hurricanes are different, repeat several observers to me. Despite the lack of all communications in the city, Brazilians become completely fluent in the details of Furacao Katreeennaa. The cyber-cafe owner explains the topography of New Orleans to me and the problems with budgetary funding for the levee system. The sewing group recites to me the differences between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm. Meanwhile it has not rained in the Amazon for months, causing the most dire drought there in 60 years.

In contrast, I continue to be hopelessly ignorant. Four nights and counting, I’m watching CNN (I can’t watch this in Portuguese). I gasp at what I think I recognize. I know that intersection, that building, that neighborhood. But what about my street? My apartment? I have to struggle not to fill the void in my head with the reports of looting, mayhem, and death. This happens every hour as the same images are re-broadcast. I want to save the outdated satellite images of my building from Google Earth as a momento.


Still Brazilians “know” that the U.S. is rich.

“How are you doing?” asks a concerned university professor here at the federal campus.

“I think we may have lost everything,” I sigh.

“Oh but the insurance will pay.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Then the government will just give it all back to you.”

The prime-time telenovela passing on the television now is America. Set in against a colorful yet gleaming Miami skyline, the Americans that Brazilians imagine continue to be blessed with easy fame and fortune. Even when the furacao came into the storyline, it brought gentle rain and a light breeze.


Thursday I go to a city-sponsored fair where the sewing group sells their crafts. They have not sold anything today and middle-class people sniff at the prices. The woman that everyone refers to as the happy one, talks to me for the first time since I met her three weeks ago.

“I lost my house last April. We were sleeping when the rains eroded the wall holding it. I’ll never forget the noise. Pieces of the house started falling down the hill. I left with the kids but my husband was trapped in a part where the roof collapsed. The room was filling with water. When my cousin came, he broke through the metal and gashed his foot. When we got to my husband, the water was up to his neck. We survived.”

“And your house?” I ask.

“We lost everything. We live with my mother.”

I take inventory of the luxuries I have in my hotel room: hot water, cable television, and an air conditioning unit. I am not from Miami, nor from Manaus.


New Orleans Under Water

New Orleans Under Water

For me, news bytes become ironic ways of seeing similarities and differences between two cultures that misunderstand each other. On Friday both Manaus and New Orleans are 36-degrees Celsius with over 80 percent humidity. In the former, 80 percent of the city was without water after a power generator that fed the water company had to be shut off. In the latter, 80 percent of the city was under water according to the Mayor. This means that in both cities, bodies are dirty and thirsty. I roll the blue anti-malarial pills around in my hand after a CNN reporter cites the possibility of malaria in Louisiana. Here, the papers cite the highest incidences of malarial deaths in eight years. And I have not even been bitten.

Before the hurricane, I made a class presentation to a university extension class in the periphery. In the question period, a returning student asked what it was like to come from a developed country to an underdeveloped country.

“I don’t like those terms,” I parried in my best professorial voice. Some have called Brazil “Belinda,” part-Belgium, part-India. I think that in some ways Manaus is very developed. To demonstrate, I asked them how many of them owned cell phones. All hands in the classroom of working class people rose affirmatively.

A week later, though, I get the response that the student was expecting. The continuous blog for the New Orleans newspaper reports that my city has lost all modern communications, electricity, and potable water. New Orleans has become a Third World city.

Image Credits:

1. Old World Map

2. New Orleans Under Water

Please feel free to comment.

Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows?: Television as History

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of broadcast television in Australia. It was launched just in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

The anniversary has provoked a flurry of events in this country. Among them is a national conference to be held in Sydney on the history of TV in Australia.

With colleagues Joshua Green and Jean Burgess I’ve been preparing a paper for this event. There will be plenty of contributions on the development of the industry, programming and audiences, so the idea we’re working on is not to trace the history of something on TV, but instead to look at television as history in Australia.

No origin; no “it”
One trouble with “television as history” is that it’s not a coherent object of study. TV is one of those things that isn’t really an “it” at all. It doesn’t have an essence, either technically or as a broadcast system, so “it” was improvised, emerging as the work of many hands, individual, corporate and governmental, over a lengthy period.

TV history was and remains strongly national. There’s even a whiff of competitiveness that plays itself out through the public record. For instance Wikipedia plays up the US contribution. There is no doubt that the most influential and widespread forms of broadcast programming and formats, from news to sitcom, originated in the USA in the 1950s. But TV was up and running as a scalable broadcasting system in Europe well before then. Key inventions came from Germany and Britain, while TV as we know it today; i.e. a corporately-owned variety medium playing for leisure consumption in the early evenings to families at home, was launched in Britain by the BBC on November 2, 1936. The US system launched in 1941 (when Europe was at war but the USA wasn’t).

Such national differences mean that any anniversary is pretty arbitrary, even if you concentrate on the launch of broadcast systems as opposed to technical inventions. Thus, 2006 is the 70th anniversary of broadcasting for the Brits; 69th for the Germans, 65th for the USA; 54th for Canada; and so on up to Bhutan, where TV is six years old.

Each of the pioneer countries developed different standards, including internally competing ones. Television was invented twice in various countries, like the USSR, which established electromechanical TV as early as 1931, but then re-started with imported cathode ray tubes in 1938-9.

The context of viewing was also not uniform. The BBC targeted a domestic audience in order to boost receiver sales, which meant in effect that the very first broadcast TV audience was confined pretty much to electrical retailers. The BBC scheduled programming specifically for them during the afternoons, so that they might demonstrate the sets. Meanwhile television was launched in Nazi Germany as a public medium, projected in TV viewing halls.

Australia sat this history out, importing existing technology, system and product. TV was launched in New South Wales and Victoria in 1956. But it didn’t reach the other mainland states until 1959. Tasmania and Canberra waited until the early 1960s and the Northern Territory did without it until 1971.

Academic history
Academic histories of television are less common than you might think, especially histories of programming as opposed to broadcasting systems (Alan McKee has made this point). With few exceptions the academic study of television is stuck in the endless present tense of scientific or policy discourse, pondering questions of effect, behaviour, technology, power and profit.

There are histories, of course, and excellent scholarship, but such work is rarely at the cutting edge of the discipline. Indeed, that is why media scholar Liz Jacka organised the upcoming conference in the first place, because the neglect of television history is especially pronounced in Australia.

Cultural Institutions
Academia is not alone in this regard. Given that watching TV is the most popular pastime in the world and in all history, it is surprising how little the major institutions of cultural memory have taken any notice of it. Museums, galleries and archives that pretend to national status have almost completely ignored it. Television as cultural history is strangely elusive.

On the whole, where they’ve noticed it at all, cultural institutions have not been kind to television. After all these years there is still too much of what Roland Barthes once called “either/or-ism”: Either Cultural Institutions, or the dreaded Tube, viz.:

Cultural Institutions TV
institutions of collection medium of diffusion
public commercial
memorialise art and culture memorialise schlock, dreck, kitsch
city and civic experience suburban and domestic experience
extraordinary ordinary
art behaviour

You know the script.

While the national institutions are a cultural wasteland if you’re interested in popular media, there are specialist museums, archives and cultural institutions. In Australia the National Film and Sound Archive (ScreenSound) has a permanent collection of “representative” TV programming. Its premises in Canberra also feature walk-through exhibitions which include sections on the history of TV.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, host of the conference we’re attending in December, is planning a major exhibition in 2006 called On the Box. They’re billing it as “a spectacular exhibition examining the impact of television on the lives of Australians.” We’ll see “The largest collection of television costumes, props and memorabilia ever displayed in Australia!” “Landmark programs and key personalities, as well as studio technology and behind-the-scenes production!” Thought-provoking displays will explore the role of television in the community. Classic Australian clips will show how TV has kept us entertained for five decades”.

Even though such exhibitions are quite rare, they already conform to what Raymond Williams once called “the culture of the selective tradition.” Some aspects of a cultural form are selected over others, such that “the history of television” — where it is noticed at all — is so standardized that it has itself become a genre.

In the process, television usually becomes a symptom of something else. Part criminal, part fool, it stands for our collective fears, desires and follies. If you’re in a serious mood, it’s the history of social and cultural impact (read: negative) or cultural imperialism (read: Americanisation). But meanwhile let’s wallow in nostalgia and see the ads, comedy shows, kids’ TV and sport from, well, yesteryear. Let’s laugh at those hairstyles, cringe at those clothes, wince at how our favourite celebs used to look (pretty bloody awful if the truth be known — why did we put up with them at the time?).

Such topics also correspond to various target demographics: nostalgia and “the history of me” for the oldies; arch critique and knowing kitsch for the urban sophisticates; celebrities and games for the kids.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne is also planning to mark the anniversary. I’ve been working with a group of researchers from QUT to assist ACMI with their plans for this exhibition. It has been fascinating to be involved in the very practical problems associated with trying to make television into history.

Not the least of the issues is a familiar conundrum for any curator or artistic director interested in popular culture — what will persuade people to switch off the TV and come in here to watch TV? It all seems counterintuitive. Immersed as everyone is in popular culture, why would anyone bother to invest time in visiting more of it?

It is really hard — so much so that I haven’t discovered an instance of it yet — to find an exhibition on television that takes the medium and its practitioners just as seriously as artists, photographers and filmmakers are taken in galleries. What would television history look like if it were curated for the Tate modern or MOMA? (If anyone knows an example please tell me.)

1956 Television

1956 Television

The closest thing I’ve seen was the inaugural exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991, to celebrate 35 years of Australian TV. TV Times was curated by David Watson and Denise Corrigan, and one of its exhibits was a large black box with peepholes through which visitors could spy — as if through an open fridge door and other vantage points — on a suburban couple (played by actors) who sat there watching television (and looking bored leafing through magazines etc.). Very Foucauldian, and an artwork in its own right.

But the MCA collapsed financially soon afterwards and had to be re-launched with a different business plan. Memorialising the popular arts in a serious way seems not to be part of it.

Television on television
There’s an odd but equally standardised genre of TV show that celebrates the history of television.

The very first broadcast in Australia (September 16, 1959) started with announcer Bruce Gyngell (who went on to head up TVam in the UK) saying “Good evening and welcome to television.” He actually did do this. However, the familiar footage that is endlessly re-shown was recorded a year later — to celebrate the first anniversary of Sydney TV station TCN9.

I’m sure Derrida would have something to say about that, but in any case the die was cast. This was how you did television history on television. By faking it. It was simply a matter of promoting the station in question, and if you didn’t have the appropriate materials you just “recreated” them. And on no account did you celebrate the stars, shows or scoops of the opposition.

TV marked its 20th and 21st birthdays with back-slapping gala events in ballrooms packed with personalities. As TV matured and budgets for junketing fell, somewhat, TV history shows moved out of the ballroom and into the archive. The 30th and 40th anniversaries were studio-based affairs, less about the live experience of making television and more about the content screened and the magical moments that television has provided for the delighted viewer. The emphasis was on genre divisions and viewer nostalgia, leavened by celebrity presenters making painful scripted jokes.

In 1991 Channel Nine’s 35 Years of Television made history of its own. It claimed to be the first show that covered commercial TV as a whole, not just one channel. It was presented by stars and personalities from the three commercial networks (although it complained that “the other networks” were reluctant to share their material).

Celebrations for the 50th are already well under way. For instance Kerry Packer’s Nine Network has recently aired a “special” called Five Decades of Laughs and Legends, on the curious grounds that we are now inside the year of the anniversary (tell that to someone who’s 49 and one month!).

As Graeme Blundell (a.k.a. “Alvin Purple”) commented in The Australian, “Five Decades smacks of a grab for ratings desperately — and cheaply — fashioned from the junk pile and the banal hysteria of TV’s supermarket. But despite the less than lofty motives of the networks, the history of TV can’t help being compelling viewing.”

Junk? Banal? Hysteria? Supermarket? Hey — that’s my life! Blundell conceded, however, that “it does illustrate just how far we’ve come since 1956.” Well, yes and no.

To fill the void left by “official culture” and television itself there are the amateurs, fans, and the retired technicians and announcers from the heyday of broadcasting. They maintain museums in barns and sheds. They have migrated enthusiastically to the net. They are the “pro-am” consumer co-creators of television history (e.g. the Australian Museum of Modern Media).

The pro-ams tend to fall into two broad groups, organized around technologies on the one hand and programming on the other.

Those interested in programming tend to be the fans and cult followers (to sample, see facts and trivia about iconic Aussie soapie Neighbours).

The techies divide between “pros” and “ams.” Professionals are those who have worked in the industry and can discuss details down to the question of whether the electron beam in early cathode ray tubes swept right-to-left or left-to-right. Amateurs are those who love the furniture that glows (Television History: The First 75 Years”).

The pro-ams are proving to be much more interesting and useful to the cause of television as history than the great cultural institutions of memory that soak up the tax dollar. Like eBay their websites make accessible curios that would have been impossible to find before. And unlike “official” curators they’re really interested in TV history, in which many of them have played an active role, on both sides of the screen.

Some of them even seem to be working for broadcasters now. The BBC especially seems drawn to the possibilities .

The future of history
It’s clear that television history is not the work of one agency or even one “discursive regime” (as we used to say). The work of producing it is shared among academics, cultural institutions, pro-ams (including fans and TV professionals), and the history that emerges is different in each case, and in each country.

TV history overall still seems to be mostly “folklore” or “ideology” rather than “discipline” or “science.” Legends are spun that serve the interests of the teller, and these stories tell us more about the source of the narrative — whether a national, cultural, academic, commercial or consumerist speaking position — than they do about television as such.

But as we’ve investigated the cultural memorialisation of television it has also become clear that something new is afoot. The internet offers entirely new possibilities for TV as history, and the number of potential participants in the work of piecing it together has dramatically increased with the inclusion of the “pro-ams.” At the moment the various parties to this work have little in common and less mutual contact. But the future of television history looks a lot more interesting than its past. As they used to say; we have the technology.

Links to more “pro-am” sites:
Early television (treasure island)
Radio history (check out the recommended reading)
House of broadcasting (weird enough for you?)
Museum Victoria (an official site, but nerdily it boasts possessing the “first cathode ray tube television in the southern hemisphere”!)
Vintage Electronics Museum (a guy from Hove with a lot of TV sets)
Birth-Of-TV (a European project)

Image Credits:

1. 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2. 1956 Television

Please feel free to comment.

When Mullahs Ride the Airwaves: Muslim Televangelists and the Saudi Connection

Dishes and Mosque

Dishes and Mosque


“Soccer is not an illicit form of entertainment, but when practiced in violation of shariah, then it is as abhorrent as any other sin…. When we fanatically love non-Muslim players who perform the sign of the cross upon entering or leaving the field…or when Muslim players imitate the pagan dance of famous infidel players when they score, or put forbidden things on their chests, that’s not acceptable.” The author of this soccer fatwa is Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid on a set of Islam’s powerful spokeschannel, Iqra’ TV.

Until recently sheikhs like Al-Munajid were only able to reach their audience through audio and video recordings sold on Arab black street markets. Those who preached a rigorous interpretation of Islam had a minimal impact among fringe groups of Arab populations, but as satellite technology becomes greatly appealing to the religious and the secular alike, television channels with a strict religious message as Iqra’ are quickly setting shop. Inaugurated in 1998, Iqra’ is Saudi Arabia’s most recent and probably most effective campaign of spreading its Wahhabi doctrine, which the channel’s producers temper by saying on their website that their mission is to bring “the teachings of Islam into the homes and hearts of Arabs worldwide.” The Saudis take issue with the Wahhabi label because it makes them look less as the real Islam and more like a sect that is highly disputed in some respectable religious circles. But the systematic indoctrination of imams and financing of religious schools and mosques around the world reveal a rigid reading of Islam which forbids close interaction with non-Muslims and calls for the literal application of shariah laws across the region, including hand amputation for theft, sword beheading for capital crimes, and denying women any role in public life.

For years, Saudi Arabia had to flaunt its generosity towards poor Muslim countries by building hospitals, schools, universities and mosques even in Western Europe and the United States. According to Saudi officials, between 1975 and 2002, the Riyadh government spent more than $70 billion on Islamic projects around the world, excluding the millions of dollars volunteered by Saudi charity foundations and unidentified philanthropists. An estimated 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are funded by Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. While the funding of mosques and the ideological direction of those who frequent them do not necessarily correlate, the influence of the Saudis over the content of the sermons, the training of imams, and the substance of Islamic schools’ curricula is undeniable.

Religious spending per se is not the problem here, but it is the extremist ideology promoted thanks to this cash availability that is disturbing. The voices of intransigent Islam are featured frequently on the airwaves of Iqra’, and their edicts are often consistent with the Wahhabi attempt to purge Islam of what is perceived as foreign threat disguised as societal change. In fact, some of the messages on the channel can be extreme like Saudi cleric Aed Al-Qarni’s recent on-the-air endorsement of suicide bombing. “Houses and young men must be sacrificed,” he says, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the road to victory and to shahada (sacrifice). Oh brothers, the idolatrous Vietnamese, Cambodians, and South Africans….Nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices–sacrificing people, blood, and souls. All the more so should we, the nation of Islam.” And some show moderators often appear as enlightened by their guests’ revelations as when Egyptian historian, Zaynab Abdel Aziz tells a show host that the “Vatican delegated the US to carry out 9/11.”

While religious platforms such as Iqra’ do not call for jihad bluntly, theycontribute to an increasingly radicalized religious culture in the Arab world, making every facet of social, cultural, and economic life a religious issue in need of a fatwa. Fatwas range from Muslim women needing to comply with their husbands’ desire in bed even if they don’t want to, to why hands of stealers should be chopped, to whether Muslims should shake hands with Jews. Iqra’ (literally: “recite” or “read in an
intelligent way”), has found a fertile ground in a region still lacking basic political reforms and jaded with repetitious autocratic and corrupt regimes. For years, religious groups–mostly underground–in the Arab world have become the only viable alternative: when the health
system fails customarily in these countries, Islamic groups with disposable cash can intervene with their own doctors for free; when schools educate poorly, the same groups offer their own teachers for free. In the wake of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, religious groups often respond quickly and more efficiently than governments to help the victims and alleviate their losses, as was the case in the earthquakes of Algeria and last year’s floods of northeastern Morocco. The failure of secular regimes to provide minimum social welfare and secure political freedom in the region has steadily nurtured a new perception whereby the state benefits the elite while religion benefits the masses.

This is why the world of Arab media seems swamped with religious messages, but by now, Arabs have evolved since the state-owned, everything-is-fine, and dull television channels. So, in order to appeal to a more media saturated audience, the producers of Iqra’ are taunting their skills by making religious preaching less shabby and threatening. The on-screen graphics and studio sets are comparable to entertainment television, but nothing is more alluring than the new look of Islamic scholars and sheikhs who do not always conform to the conventional image of a preacher in a mosque. In fact, many of these preachers and scholars wear suits and use softer tones than usual. Some of them are young and do not claim to be a religious authority like the channel’s superstar preacher, Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old who hosts one of the most popular programs on Arab television, Sunaa al Hayat (Life Makers).

Khaled, who has become a household name across the Arab world, is seemingly an anomaly in the Saudi quest to popularize Wahhabism: he is young, a business accountant not a religious scholar, and with a somewhat liberal and tolerant approach to Islamic preaching. Khaled’s fame at Iqra’ was preceded by a long showdown with Egyptian authorities who expelled him from Egypt after his religious lectures had become spiritual revelations for thousands of well-to-do women and youth in the country. His age, modern look (wearing jeans or a suit and clean-shaven), and the use of colloquial Arabic make him accessible to a young Arab audience extremely tired of the staid, disconnected sheikhs of Islam. But what made Khaled’s message appealing to the Saudi channel Iqra’; is that it is liberal only in style and quite conservative in substance. During his lectures and discussions on the hijab, Khaled is rarely original in citing the reasons why Muslim women should be veiled. Women are the pillars of Islamic education and wearing the veil, he says, is a selfless gesture to protect the sanctity of the faith itself: “I think that the primary purpose of legislating hijab, other than preservation of virtue, is…to remind people in the street about Islam; there will be no way better than hijab.” Islam’s integrity, he says on his show, depends on the virtue of its women and since their responsibility in the temptation of men is inevitable, veiling is a must, even if you don’t understand. While Khaled’s message lacks in originality and critical quality, his highly emotional, talk-show style provides an innovative and soothing statement that you can be pious and still remain modern and cool. And the Amr Khaled phenomenon has just begun despite some already unprecedented television ratings for his show: five million viewers tune in to his weekly show and his web site records millions of hits daily.

By putting Khaled next to the old and conventional sheikhs, Iqra’s producers are hoping to change the moral path of young Arabs who are still deeply influenced by Western popular culture. Major Internet chat rooms in the region are teeming with testimonies, particularly of young women thanking Khaled for convincing them to put on the veil. Programming this year included not only talk shows and lectures, but dramas and cartoons. It is hard to quantify the impact of Khaled’s hip preaching and Iqra’s religious broadcasting, but religion has never been this popular from Cairo to Casablanca. At a time when political regimes in the region continuously fail their constituency and Islam is the subject of humiliating headlines, Khaled and a wave of young preachers seem not only innovative, but also vengeful in a let’s-go-back-to-the-roots fashion. It is therefore not a surprise to find Saudi Arabia at the helm of this religious survival in disguise. Though Wahhabism may never become a preferred doctrine of Muslim Arabs, its signature of uncritical, exclusionary spirituality is quickly infiltrating Arab living rooms and delaying badly needed reforms both in religious interpretations and political rule.

The 30-year-old executive manager of Iqra’, Mohammad Hammam, likes to think of his channel as serving a double mission: counter the post-September 11 image of Islam and guide Muslims to understand better their own religion. Many of the ideas propagated from the sets of the channel, however, belie the core of this mission. If there is one, it seems to be to flood the airwaves with a fatigued interpretation of religion simply refurbished with funky jingles and beardless preachers.

Iqra’ TV

Image Credits

1. Dishes and Mosque

Please feel free to comment.

Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.


Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.

Sim City or Dream City? Computer Imaging in the Reconstruction of Iraq

3D City

3D City

A couple of days after checking into the Hotel Erbil in Hawler (the name preferred by the Kurds for their city), I noticed a display of cityscapes mounted on boards on the mezzanine across the lobby. But my mind was on other things so at first I didn’t check it out. I was to meet Slí­man Faiq Taki, the Dean of the Cinema Department of the University of Salahaddin, to talk about a media department curriculum. The interim head of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Buland Dizayi, an environmental engineer pressed into service while another Dean was scouted up, drove me across town to the building which temporarily housed his office. He was worried that we hadn’t been able to reach Dr. Slí­man on the phone, but as luck would have it, we encountered him trudging across a parking lot in the scorching heat. He joined us in Dizayi’s office so we could talk. It turned out Slí­man Taki wasn’t much interested in a media department with its vertical silos of journalism, electronic media, media studies, and cinema studies. He was, however, very interested in building up a cinema department. But first, he had to find a building.

The university here has 17,000 students (including night classes) but not enough facilities. So facilities are being reclaimed from government buildings abandoned by Saddam’s regime. Buland Dizayi mentioned with a dark streak of Kurdish irony, that some classes now were held in the same buildings where Saddam’s troops used to torture Kurds. The building in which we were meeting was a former dormitory with chipped linoleum floors and intermittent electric power.

Dr. Slí­man Taki’s department consisted of a staff, basically his sons and his wife, who are artists or technicians. He had 25 students, but no equipment, and no building. He had spotted another government building that no one was using on a nearby lake and was planning on talking with the President of the University, Dr. Mohammed Sadik, about the possibility of claiming it. He outlined his own vision for his department, starting with scriptwriting and directing areas in which he specialized, acting, make-up, costume, (his wife’s speciality), cinematography and 3D design (the interest of his sons). He was clear about how he wanted to proceed.

But finding a building and getting his department up and running was only the first tier of a long term plan. He telephoned his son, Safin S. Taki, who arrived wearing an Euro cut black jacket over a grey T-shirt and carrying a laptop. They talked about their lives as part of the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden and Dr. Slí­man Taki’s own interest in producing a 3-script fictional narrative about the dislocations of life for Kurdish young adults into a film. They spoke of their frustration with finding backers. When they came to Iraq and spoke with Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish autonomous region, however, they found an interested party. He pledged some funds toward the film department and encouraged them to stay in Kurdistan.

They said that Barzani understood the power of film. They had visions even beyond building a department and producing their film. They wanted to build a studio and already had plans simulated in a hyperreal space of 3-D animation. Safin flipped open the laptop to demonstrate a DVD they had created showing their vision for a new northern Iraqi (i.e. Kurdish) studio.

The DVD simulated the studio using the programs that an architect’s office might use. The opening shot of the building helicoptered in an arc in the approach of the building. The lobby was suitably grand. A John Williams type score swelled as background music. (Iraq is not a nation adhering to copyrights just yet.) Classrooms, edit rooms, make up rooms, and a foley studio, complete with SFX of glass shattering, demonstrated the future technical capabilities of the studio. A screening auditorium capable of holding hundreds of patrons was the final location that we cycled through. I asked where the studio would be built. Slí­man Taki is an expansive man. He suggested somewhere out in the countryside near streams and mountains. He is excited by his vision and sees no reason why Kurdistan cannot have a studio one day. He pointed out that the early Hollywood studios were developed simply because filmmakers thought the location was better than New Jersey or San Antonio. (And who would have thought a Mid-East rival to CNN, Al Jazeera, could be constructed in the middle of Qatar?) For now, at least, the simulation technology and his son’s expertise on a laptop are all he has.

That experience propelled me back to the lobby to examine the architectural renderings with similar computerized programs of a new Dream City (the actual name) being constructed outside of Hawler. Various models of homes were available, with floor plans. Some were designs of Turkish, UAE, Egyptian, Iranian style houses. Prices ranged from $160,000 US though most are closer to half a million in US dollars. The blow ups of computerized housing were complete with virtual families consisted of images of smiling mothers, fathers, and children, although closer examination showed some of them to be disproportionate in size from one another, some European appearing — images pirated from some other web site or scanned from a publication and pasted into the computerized simulation of the model.

The Dream City houses also appear in televised ads here. In reality, a drive just outside of Hawler reveals Dream City to be miles of empty acres elaborately walled and gated, with bricked sidewalks. According to the spokesmen, only the central fountain and a few houses have begun construction. A supermarket along the lines of a MaziMart (a Dohuk-based enterprise similar to Target or WalMart) has broken ground next as a part of the development as well. In fact, another Dream City has already been constructed in Dohuk. While the acres appear empty now, the power of computerized imaging has fleshed out the dream for Iraqis and made it virtual reality at least. A fellow academic who traveled with me from the U.S. also came to talk with University President Dr. Sadik about new architectural design for a system of primary and secondary schools. Despite his moorings in the high-tech US, he carried only architectural drawings on paper. Meanwhile, the energetic Kurds have already picked up their laptops and started imaging and designing their own future.

A haze of the dust of reconstruction hangs in the air over this city of over a million and everywhere houses are under construction. New retail facilities, offices and streets are torn up as plumbing and electricity is upgraded or installed. Iraq is a nation that is in the middle of reconstruction at least in the relative calm of the Kurdish north. But the visions of a possible prosperous future for a “Kurdistan” — within Iraq or outside it– are everywhere on laptops, on television, pointing to a dream, which, though simulated for the moment, seems to propel energy, hope, and, if the Kurds are lucky enough, investment.

Image Credits:
1. 3D City

Please feel free to comment.

War, Incendiary Media, and International Law (Part I)

War Protesters In Iraq

War Protesters in Iraq

In numerous major military conflicts of the past twenty years, of which the Iraqi war was/is the most recent, there has been an increased focus for observers in international law on the abuse of the media to engender violence, ethnic hatred, and even genocide. The media, particularly radio and the internet, have been identified as significant political tools for mass manipulation by dictatorial governments to drive deep seated animosity between social and ethnic groups, resulting in an intense atmosphere of mistrust, misinformation, and devastating killings. Nationalistic and propagandistic constructions of ethnophobia in the media helped shape wars and justify mass violence, through pitching Serbs against Croats, Hutus against Tutsis, Muslims against Roman Catholics, the Iraqis against the Kurds. What these media-influenced atrocities have made clear is that critical media studies must be reconfigured to respond to these and other crisis conditions.

The pre-conflict abuse of the media to inflame inter-ethnic differences is seen as the catalyst for war. Once warfare breaks out, the media can become a centerpiece of the struggle between factions that want to utilize the media to escalate hatred and spread fear against one another. In post-conflict times, with the media infrastructures possibly destroyed, journalists killed or fled, and the entire media space quickly becoming a site of renewed struggle between the interim authority and remaining factions, there are critical questions that urgently concern critical media studies from the perspective of international human rights law: To what extent should foreign agencies such as the EU, UN, USAID, etc. intervene in the post-conflict reconstruction of the media space in order to prevent it from being abused again as well as to help produce and maintain public order? What is the legal basis in human rights law for such an intervention? How do different forms of intervention stand the legal scrutiny for managing’ and even restricting the freedom of the press in the post-conflict state? How is the line drawn between a “media intervention” aimed at achieving urgent military goals of stabilization and peace-keeping, and a media intervention aimed at longer-term development of a civil and human-rights respecting society? In what ways are the perspectives different among inter-governmental agencies, donor nations, and non-government organizations (e.g. journalist associations) regarding the legality of, and the actual protocol for, media intervention? What perspectives do they share, especially as benchmarked against international legal norms? This is the first of a three-part analysis that attempts to open up these questions and introduce to critical media studies practitioners a legal mode of analyzing media and warfare from a human rights perspective. This first piece outlines what media/information intervention is.

The most pressing legal and humanitarian consideration about the mass media, to which the whole question of media intervention is directed, is the profound problem of “hate speech.” The discussion of hate speech in human rights law has indeed moved beyond the confines of racial discrimination in community settings. It has moved into the contexts of inter-ethnic violence, armed conflict, and genocide. Indeed, underpinning a part of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is the explicit association of the media and genocidal violence as well as the prosecution of media-generated hate speech. The legal definition of hate speech has been most clearly articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Article 20(2) of the ICCPR prohibits “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Article 4 of the ICERD defines racist speech as “ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination” and “propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination.” In addition, “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is punishable pursuant to Article 3 of Genocide Convention.

“We need to explore what can be done between the impossible everything and the unacceptable nothing. The political cost of doing everything is usually prohibitive. The moral cost of doing nothing is astronomical. If we accept that we are not going to do everything possible to stem a given conflict, what can we do to have as much impact as we are willing to have?” (Thompson, 2002a, 41-42). Jamie Metzl, a key proponent of information intervention, describes in the above the need for intervention as a moral obligation exercised in the context of limited influence. Media/information intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the mass media have been manipulated for inciting hatred and violence. Where there is humanitarian intervention taken to avert mass suffering, media intervention campaigns are designed to supplement such an action. But where there is weak or even no political will to take action in crisis situations, media intervention campaigns are to compel an ideological force in the international community to confront the crises. Such campaigns are supposed to adhere to human rights norms.

Regarding methods, information intervention can take place in pre-conflict, mid-conflict, and post-conflict times. Strategies such as broadcasting counter-information, dropping leaflets, and the most controversial of all, jamming broadcasting signals from the target state, are best applied in pre-conflict and mid-conflict times. As for after the conflict, reconstruction work typically calls for a robust “media development” program, which can include

  • human rights training and education of journalists
  • enhancement of independent local media outlets
  • setting up interim media commissions
  • establishing licensing mechanisms linked to hate speech laws and other codes of conduct to ensure quality balanced programming
  • creating programmes that promote inter-ethnic conversation
  • protecting safety of journalists from intimidation and other violent threats
  • forging a monitoring role for the media during the transition to a stable government through election
  • other democratizing activities of the media sphere.

However, while the ultimate legality of such intervention methods created in the name of reconstruction will continue to be debated, the legal ground for more aggressive measures taken in times of imminent or present conflict appears to be tenuous, such as in jamming broadcasting signals, techniques of information manipulation (such as cyberwar), seizure of transmitters, or even bombing broadcasting towers. These aggressive actions resemble the “use of force,” which is prohibited by the UN Charter and other long-standing international norms. Peter Krug and Monroe Price (2002) warn: “[T]he human rights rationale for what might be called ‘aggressive peacemaking’ and the intrusiveness into the zone of freedom of expression is a precarious one. [Moreover][w]hen an international governmental organization engages in regulation of the press, its actions may affect the nature of the political system that follows. How a regulatory rule is shaped, how it is presented in the society, how those who will be subject to a seemingly censorial rule react and accept that rule–all these are part of the difficult process of democracy development in a conflict zone” (164). Certainly, it is one thing to prevent violence, it is another for the information intervention program to intrude upon the target state’s autonomous public sphere and even to exert influence and authority in the target state.

Not surprisingly, Jamie Metzl has been criticized for promoting “a more adroit spinning of United States foreign policy represent[ing] a fashionable means of enhancing United States predominance within the international system, using information technology”(Thompson, 2002, 56). It has been argued that the entire effort smacks of hegemonic intention under the guise of humanitarian intervention. In Part II, I will examine in closer detail the legal framework for scrutinizing media intervention according to international human rights norms.

This list is compiled from several media development experiences in post-conflict Bosnia and Kosovo. See, among others, Pech (1999/2000) and Price (2000).


Krug, Peter, and Monroe Price. “A Module for Media Intervention.” Monroe E. Price and Mark Thompson, eds. Forging Peace: Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of Media Space. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002. 148-74.

Pech, Laurent. “Is Dayton Falling? Reforming Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” International Journal of Communication Law and Policy 4 (1999/2000): 1-28.

Price, Monroe. “Intervention: Bosnia, the Dayton Accords, and the Seizure of Broadcasting Transmitters.” Cornell International Law Journal 33 (2000): 67-112.

Thompson, Mark. “Defining Information Intervention: An Interview with Jamie Metzl.” Forging Peace. 2002. 41-68.

Image Credits:

1. War Protesters in Iraq

Ferdinand Nahimana page on Trial Watch website
International Crime Tribunal for Rwanda
Media Development in Post-war Iraq

Please feel free to comment.

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.

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1. Global Media

TV Globo
Television from around the world

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The Seeds of Doom?

by: Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

Doctor Who
Doctor Who

The BBC’s revived production of Doctor Who has been, by all accounts, a smashing success in Britain. Brought back to life on television after a fifteen-year sojourn in various non-television media forms, the series has captured sizeable audiences and copious media coverage to a degree not seen since the heyday of Tom Baker in the late 1970s. Writer-producer Russell T. Davies has managed to make Doctor Who (2005) simultaneously classic and contemporary, serving up equal portions of adventure, wit, and fear in lightning-paced episodes.

While the series has taken off in the UK, however, the official reception of the new series in the United States has been much cooler. Despite an otherwise successful global sales effort, and a fair amount of US fan interest, the BBC has not yet sold the series to any US television outlet, whether broadcast, cable, or satellite. US Doctor Who fans have been left in a holding pattern of sporadic announcements of “ongoing negotiations,” and rampant online speculation as to where the series might wind up. The only publicly acknowledged rejection of the series came in late February from the Sci-Fi Channel, who, according to reports, cryptically claimed to have found the series “somewhat lacking.” This phrase, which has considerably heightened fan anxiety, frames the overall debate about the new series, and highlights the gaps of media globalization, i.e., the cultural, economic, and legal boundaries that still exist between national media regimes.

“Boundaries” are structural issues (in both the theoretical and material senses), marking off categories. In this case, as with most others in global media, the key structures are distribution networks. While the legitimate, “official” network of transnational media trade has thus far failed to bring Doctor Who to the US, the illegitimate, “unofficial,” and rapidly growing network of online file sharing has provided the series from the get-go. High-resolution video files of episodes are posted online within minutes of their UK broadcasts, mostly via BitTorrent, the radically non-centralized file distribution method that has shifted peer-to-peer file sharing into a higher gear. Unlike older P2P systems, BitTorrent is designed for optimum network efficiency, actually escalating file-sharing speed as traffic increases. Users must “seed” (upload) and “leech” (download) bits of the same file simultaneously, producing a so-called “swarm” of data as dozens, or even thousands, of computers swap file parts. When coupled with increasingly ubiquitous broadband connections, BitTorrent can deliver gigabytes of data in a matter of a few hours. The much anticipated (or dreaded, from the perspective of the copyright industries) “Napsterization” of video data is here.

Thus, we have a significant differential between distribution networks: one functions through the long-established, top-down models of audience flow, media capitalization, and copyright, while the other simply serves up media on demand. In an era where this differential will only increase, it is worthwhile to understand the logic of each.

Television programmers across the planet value genre and predictability. That is, even in an age of otherwise diverse forms of television, programs should look, sound, and “feel” like established programs. Even something as iconoclastic as Lost still “feels” like a standard ensemble drama in its narration, characterization, design, and cinematography. The BBC’s failure to find a US buyer for Doctor Who, despite early courting before the series even entered production, and despite decades of BBC programs on US TV (including the original Doctor Who), is, as unlikely as it sounds, probably a cultural misunderstanding on these grounds. Accordingly, the Sci-Fi Channel’s alleged “somewhat lacking” comment can be understood in several different ways. From a US programmers’ perspective, the new Doctor Who is lacking in stable generic markers: it is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy, comedy, character drama, and social allegory. While this might not always be fatal (see Lost), the fact that the series is British (even more so than the original) further separates it from typical US fare. Both the Ninth Doctor (played by the Mancunian Christopher Eccleston as decidedly “Northern”) and his companion Rose (played by Billie Piper as a working class shopgirl), have quite specific British accents and demeanors that do not correlate with anything else on US commercial television at this time.

Ironically, these very factors which have thus far doomed the series in the US have arguably ensured its mainstream success in the UK. For example, the early decision to clothe the Ninth Doctor in black jeans and a beat-up leather jacket — rather than the usual “eccentric” Edwardian ensemble of frock coats, bow ties, and hats — is a clear attempt to create a contemporary, urban feel to the character. Similarly, the series’ language is not the “BBC English” of the original, but more modern and varied in its idiom and accents. The generic framing of the series as “family television” also aims for a specific, longstanding UK TV sensibility, as television that works at different levels, suitable for many ages. There simply is no counterpart to this formulation in the US, so the series is at once too chaste and playful for prime-time drama, and too arch and sophisticated for the likes of Nickelodeon. The fact that the series is shot not on film, but on standard definition video (albeit “filmized” in post-production), a format alien to US prime-time drama, is the icing on this particular aesthetic cake.

Moreover, Doctor Who is also almost certainly “lacking” any of the typical financial and proprietary inducements that abound in this post-Fin-Syn media world. While virtually every program on US TV has some sort of co-production, syndication, video distribution, or sponsorship arrangement as part of its package, the BBC wished to sell Doctor Who “old school,” as in: here’s the show. No co-ownership, no ancillary distribution rights, no product placement. No wonder it has yet to run here.

Meanwhile, episodes blaze across the Atlantic via the Internet in multiple forms every Saturday night (after their airing on BBC1). Given the sheer number of file-sharing options, precise totals are difficult to come by, but one fairly well-known BitTorrent tracker recorded roughly 50,000 downloads of each episode of the new Doctor Who thus far. However, the bulk of online TV traffic parallels the trajectory of most “legitimate” global media traffic: outward from the US. Studies released in the past six months noted the growing volume of television programs available online, and reached similar conclusions about its growing scope, particularly in the UK (which represents nearly one-fifth of global television downloading), Australia, and Scandinavia, where tens of thousands of copies of episodes of 24, Lost, The O.C., and Desperate Housewives routinely head right after their US broadcasts, months before their debuts overseas. While 40,000 downloads (to take a figure cited for the UK downloading of Desperate Housewives) is clearly dwarfed by the 4 million viewers who catch the series “legally” there on Channel 4, the trajectory of file sharing is clear. At least one European network, Norway’s TVNorge, has publicly claimed that downloading of US TV is costing them thousands of viewers on the episodes’ eventual broadcasts.

Studies of file-sharing also routinely take the copyright industries to task for fighting, rather than adapting to, the new distribution networks. This advice has been slow to penetrate the capital-entrenched practices of the media industries, who will likely continue to seek cultural, legal, and technological means to maintain their status quo. However, some major firms are taking steps towards the online, on-demand world. While US broadcast and cable networks continue to offer the same piecemeal level of online video content that they’ve had for years, the BBC is actively developing extensive online distribution networks. Each of their radio networks is available as a high-quality live stream, and immense amounts of past radio programs are available as archived streams and even podcasts. This approach is being adapted to the higher-bandwidth requirements of television programming. Indeed, live test streams of four BBC TV channels (including both terrestrial channels) were briefly available worldwide in April, and the BBC is developing an ambitious video-on-demand system that will take advantage of P2P technology.

The ongoing fate of the new Doctor Who reveals a great deal about the uneven “gears” of cultural globalization. The model of centralized audience flow still retains immense cultural, economic, and legal powers, but its authority in each of these areas diminishes with each new broadband account and BitTorrent tracker. What power will remain when media users no longer have to wait for the differences within the old distribution network to work out? Even the corporate marriage of content and distribution is souring, as the Apples, Sonys, and Googles of the world also challenge the old regime’s boundaries. Still, even in the emerging on-demand world, myriad conceptual boundaries will likely continue to produce gaps and differentials in the global mediascape. All media will still be “somewhat lacking,” somewhere.

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1. Doctor Who

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The Indianization of Indian Television

by: John Sinclair / University of Melbourne

It is now almost a decade and a half since international satellite services were first seen via cable to the home in India, inaugurating an era of the profusion of private channels in a society that had previously only known a government-controlled national broadcasting network, Doordarshan.

The old Doordarshan (‘DD’) was notorious for its worthy but dull programming, and for being very much an instrument of the government of the day. It was also very conservative of traditional values, especially where sexuality and bodily display were concerned – not even a kiss could be seen on screen.

In such a climate, small-scale cable operators found there was a ready demand for international satellite services, notably CNN with the onset of the first Gulf War, then the entertainment channels STAR TV in 1991, and especially, the Indian channel Zee TV in 1992. While the advent of The Bold and the Beautiful and Baywatch on STAR provoked a public debate about ‘cultural invasion’, the greatest impact of the subsequent opening up of the television market has been to stimulate the growth of Indian channels, in which Zee has been the leading light. Zee TV is the most popular of the Indian-owned cable services. It is vertically integrated with Zee Telefilms, which produces programs for the Zee television channels. Zee also has a cable distribution arm, Siticable, which is India’s largest MSO. At the international level, Zee has developed services for diasporic Indian communities in the UK, US, Africa, and the Pacific. Within India, as well as an education channel, Channel ZED, and four music and film channels in Hindi, there are channels in other South Asian languages (Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Telugu, and Punjabi), and also English.

Rise of the region

In fact, one of the most unexpected effects of the liberalization of television in India is how it has contributed to the rapid growth of channels in languages other than Hindi. Although sometimes referred to as ‘minority’ languages in comparison to India’s 337 million Hindi speakers, or ‘regional’ or ‘local’ rather than ‘national’ languages, several of them have tens of millions of speakers, such as Bengali with almost 70 million, or Tamil with 53 million. Significantly, most of the services are available not just in the region where each of the languages is spoken, but on a national, and sometimes (as with Zee and DD-India) an international basis. They are thus able to serve the diasporic populations inhabiting the geolinguistic regions they cover on a global basis.

Of the satellite-to-cable (‘C&S’) channels transmitting in the regional languages, Sun TV has been at the forefront with its service in Tamil, one of the distinct languages and cultures of southern India. Instigated by a Chennai-based family with close links to the former ruling party of Tamil Nadu State, SunTV is now one of a diversified network of channels in the languages of the south. There is also Asianet, the Malayalam service out of the state of Kerala, and Eenadu, broadcasting at first in the native Telegu language of the neighbouring state of Karnataka, and more recently in a whole range of regional languages. STAR TV has also staked out an interest in southern Indian television with its acquisition last year of Vijay Television, which produces programs for a Tamil channel of that name.

Bollywood repels ‘cultural invasion’

Fifteen years after the debate began, the cultural invasion has been attenuated, for in spite of its commercial, global gloss, Indian television is unmistakeably ‘Indian’. Most strikingly, the staple popular genre on television is the Indian film, with its characteristic music and dance. As well, some of the most popular panel and game shows are based on film music. This has meant that the proliferation of channels has also been a stimulus for the Indian film industry – not just ‘Bollywood’, the Mumbai-based Hindi industry, now so well-known in the West, but also those in some regional languages, especially Tamil. To that extent, film retains its historical pre-eminence as the powerhouse of mass-mediated popular culture, both in India, and for Indians abroad.

However, the Indian-ness of Indian television is not an eternal essence, but a contingent and contested social construction of a public culture between the local and the global, a process which Salman Rushdie called ‘chutneyfication’. Two trends are worth noting – the growing hybridization of media languages, and the popularity of channel and programming formats which have been indigenized from foreign models. Several writers have pointed to the emergence of a peculiar fusion of Hindi with English words: ‘Hinglish’. This is a media language drawn from the everyday language of the urban middle classes and of the diaspora. There is a corresponding trend towards ‘Tinglish’ in Tamil broadcasting, and possibly in the other regional languages.

In terms of channel formats, MTV is an illustrative case. Itself a global channel in multilocal formats, there are ten variants of MTV in Asia, mostly on a nation-specific basis, including MTV India. India also sustains successful indigenized versions of its own, notably Zee’s Music Asia channel and STAR’s Channel [V]. As for program formats, the most remarkable success of recent years has been Kuan Benega Crorepati (KBC) on the STAR Plus channel, based on the legally acquired format of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Part of its indigenization was its connection to Indian film, in that the host was one of the nation’s most popular ever film actors, Amitabh Bachchan, a kind of Indian Sean Connery.

Commercially, KBC was a milestone success for STAR Plus, which earns nearly 40% of STAR’s revenue in India, but which only turned a profit for the first time in 1999, following KBC’s triumph. STAR Plus subsequently moved from bilingual (English and Hindi) to all-Hindi programming in an effort to catch up with Zee and Sony. By 2002, STAR reported that it had become more profitable than Zee, and it has greatly strengthened its competitive position against Zee since.

DD dominates

However, it’s important to understand that for all the changes brought by C&S to the new television landscape in India, DD remains the dominant broadcaster over all. DD is still the only terrestrial broadcaster, and until recently, enjoyed government protection under a regulation which gave it the exclusive right to uplink its satellite signal from Indian soil. As well, DD is guaranteed wide distribution over C&S under regulatory provisions which mandate that all cable operators ‘must carry’ three DD channels.

The most decisive factor for the continued development of the relatively mass market for cable television is advertising revenue, which is much more significant for the C&S industry than are subscription fees. Advertising now constitutes 70% of C&S industry income. Even with the profusion of channels, the revenue pool has increased, given continued growth in the number of C&S homes, as well as a much more commercial ethos now established for television within the general context of the liberalization of the economy as a whole. According to a trade source, from around 15% in the last days of DD’s monopoly, television now absorbs 41% of the estimated total advertising expenditure in India. However, although DD’s share of advertising revenue has been in a long decline, this is happening more slowly than its competitors would want, and it still gathers the majority of revenue. Thus, the abundance of channels available is deceptive, since DD, along with Zee, STAR, Sony and Sun, account for about 90% of television advertising revenue between them, making it difficult for the minor players to become viable.

So, the opening up of televisual culture in India over the last fifteen years has not brought about the overrunning of local cultures implied by the rhetoric of ‘cultural invasion’. On the contrary, it has permitted growth in the regional language channels, and competition for audiences has clearly been won by those channels which have developed programs based on Indian popular culture, particularly film and film music, and which have been able to convincingly indigenize the global formats of commercial television channels and programming. The question is no longer one of local versus global, but just how they are made to work together to produce new forms of commercial culture.

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P.S. An Idol’s Pace

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

This column is something of a postscript to the last one I wrote, concerning the differential paces of television. My comments then were triggered in part by the way American television series circulate (at least officially) beyond the borders of the U.S., often with a lag of at least six months, or even one or two whole seasons behind their initial U.S. airing. Sometimes, the DVD versions may be available before the programs appear on television. In this context, I at least implied that this was the case with all American television series.

Meanwhile, American Idol is currently showing on Finnish television. This is hardly surprising since so many American television programs, including American reality programs, are available on Finnish TV: America’s Next Top Model, Playing It Straight, The Apprentice (U.S.), Survivor (U.S.), and The Amazing Race have all been shown here. Even Cheaters is shown on Finnish TV. What is distinctive in the case of American Idol is that the version currently showing in Finland is the same one currently showing in the U.S., with only a one to two week lag.

Given the prevalent distribution pattern for U.S. television in Finland, the airing of American Idol 4 struck me as somewhat surprising. At first I thought it might be related to the Internet and the ease with which one can learn about who has been cut from competition by recourse to websites, official and otherwise; ready access to this information might undercut viewership. I quickly came to my senses and realized that the same sort of information would be available for any competitive reality program, even for any television show that had episode summaries posted on some website, which means that this would be the case for virtually any American television show. But only American Idol is showing the current season. The other U.S. reality programs on Finnish broadcast or cable stations (indeed all the other U.S. series that show here) are older programs.

Finland, along with some 20-plus other countries, has also had its own version of the show, Idols Finland, which started in the fall of 2003 and concluded in January 2004. The final results episode was the third highest rated television program in Finland in 2004, with some 1.6 million viewers (in a country with a population of about 5 million people). The highest rated television program of 2004 was the same one that typically draws the largest audience every year: the live broadcast of the Finnish President’s reception on Finnish Independence Day. Given the interest elicited by the Finnish national Idols, it isn’t automatically clear that the American variant would necessarily draw the same kind of audience or interest.

It seems that the differential pace of distribution for American Idol has less to do with television per se, or with television-internet relations, than with the pace of the music industry. American Idol can best maximize global sales for the release of the already scheduled, anticipated music CDs following the televised competition if the global audience can follow the show more or less at its American television pace. It isn’t of much use to the music label if audiences outside the U.S. only decide they are interested in the music a year after its initial release, when the CDs may already be in the cut-outs bin. In Finland, at least, this reduces the programming time lag to a matter of mere weeks rather than the typical months or years. This raises a host of issues not only about the ways television intersects with other media industries, but also about television’s narrative and dramatic structures, and how they coincide (or not) with other media.

American Idol logo

Unlike dramatic series, most reality series are planned with a finite number of episodes. In this they function like mini-series or limited run programs, although successful programs can generate multiple seasons based on duplicating the basic structure of the initial limited-run design with a new array of participants. The dramatic arc is defined from the outset, based on the number of episodes, programming plan, and structure of elimination. Viewers obviously care about the outcome of these programs — in large numbers for successful shows. For American Idol the extent of this interest is registered, among other places, in the weekly voting. The competitive structure, culminating in a final outcome, clearly provides one structure of ongoing engagement and pleasure. But the ending shares these functions of engagement and pleasure with the ongoing vicissitudes of the program; as such, the process is as important as the outcome. (If the conclusion was the primary or overriding source of interest and pleasure, DVD sales of competitive reality series would be beside the point.)

As a mode of production, programming format, and even as a “genre” (using the word in a loose sense), reality programs offer an elegant balance between series and seriality, and capitalize on attracting and sustaining audiences across similarity and difference. In terms of narrative and dramatic structures, this includes a fine calibration that embraces process and outcome, peripatetic events and conclusions, the unknown and certitude, continuity and closure. Reality programs fit into television flow in these terms. While this is the case for all television series, a successful reality format — a sequence of self-contained series — makes the structure even more explicit and scaleable. But these narrative and dramatic strategies, and the resultant modes of engagement they foster, don’t necessarily directly carry over into the economies of other media. And in the case of American Idol, designed around the coalescing of television and the music industry (and digital telecommunications), it apparently results in a shift in the pacing of distribution.

Mimi White, “Going Through the Paces”
American Idol
International Idols
Idols Finland on MTV3
Idols History
World Idol

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American Idol

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Who Wants to be a Crorepati?: Global Television and Local Genres in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Host of India\'s Version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Host of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

In 2000, when Star Plus Channel launched Kaun Banega Crorepati? (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the show quickly became the biggest hit on Indian television. Hosted by the megastar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, KBC, and catch-phrases from the show such as “lock kiya jaye,” “computer-ji,” “pucca,” and “fifty-fifty,” became popular parlance in India. At first glance, KBC may seem very similar to the many versions of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? produced in more than 30 countries under a franchise agreement with the London-based Celador Productions which produced the first version in Britain. The title of the Russian version of the show translates into English as “Oh! Lucky Man,” while in the Spanish version the title reads “50 for 15” (which refers to the 50 million pesetas that the winner of 15 questions takes home as the grand prize).(1) In the Indian version, “crorepati” refers to the contestant who can win the ultimate prize of Rs. 1 crore (approximately 220,000 US dollars).

As with all the international versions of the Millionaire show, the producers of KBC were contractually obligated to reproduce, down to the exact detail, the trademark title design, the show’s sets, music, question-format and the qualification process which are laid on in a 169-page document created by Celador Productions.(2) The studio setting for KBC consists of the standard blue background, while the foreground is well-lit to bring into focus an elevated stage with two seats in the middle for the host and the contestant, and a computer placed next to the host. The studio audience is seated around the stage, with the family members of the contestants seated prominently in the first few rows. The studio audience contributes to the pace and tone of the show by applauding for the correct answer, and observing in hushed silence as the stakes get higher for the contestants. The camera work, editing, lighting and music also contribute to create the heightened senses of suspense and relief in relation to the highs and lows of each contestant’s fortunes. The host also plays an important role in creating and maintaining the ebbs and flows of suspense and relief through the show by first putting the contestants at ease small talk at the beginning, reminding them of the rising stakes as the show goes along, and nudging them to consider the use of lifelines for the more difficult questions. A quick conversation with the family members in the studio audiences, or an occasional joke at the expense of the contestant in the hot seat, a polite hello to the friend who calls in to help the contestant in a pickle, and finally a sense of empathy with the winners and losers alike; all help to personalize the host and make a connection with both the studio audiences and the television audiences.

In other words, the program format and the studio settings created for KBC are almost identical to all the other international versions of the Millionaire show. However, during the 2000-2001 season, when it was telecast for four days a week at 9:00 p.m. on Star Plus Channel, the show captured viewers’ imagination in a manner not seen in Indian television since the serialization of Ramyan and Mahabharat on Doordarshan in the late 1980s. Initially, the ratings for KBC were stratospheric with the first season enjoying a TRP rating of 14 (while most other shows on cable were struggling in the single digits). Although KBC‘s TRP rating fell to 10.2 in the following year, viewer interest remained very high, and Star TV continued to receive around 200,000 calls a day from potential contestants.(3) Fans of the show who could not, or did not want to, get on the show were just as eager to share a seat next to the Big B (as Amitabh Bacchan is popularly known in India).

Not everyone, of course, was caught up in the euphoria over KBC. In an online discussion group on KBC at, a couple of irritated reviewers tried to explain to an overwhelming majority of fans that the show was just a cheap imitation of a foreign program. A posting by “Amrita” reads, “Before I start my review, let me educate the members here that KBC is an exact copy of American show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Another posting by “Sujay Marthi” is even more scathing, “What is it about this pack of new-age foreign-trained producers of TV serials/programmes that makes me think that they’ve all worked as stable hands before? The similarities in the two fields are too glaring to miss.”(4)

For the diehard fans of KBC, however, the criticism that the show is “an exact copy” of the Millionaire seems to be of little concern, as the following posting by “dhrumil 83” on reveals: “KAUN BANEGA CROREPATI might have had been copied from ‘WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE’. But to tell you the truth the copied version is better than the original one. SIMPLE ANSWER – It has AMITABH BACHAN [sic] in it. He is the one the greatest…”.(5)

Although some of reasons for KBC‘s success may have to do with the trade-marked presentation and packaging of the Millionaire franchise around the world, it would be difficult to ignore the role that Amitabh Bachchan plays as the host of the show in making the show more appealing to Indian television viewers. In one of the more astute analysis of the Crorepati narratives, Shiv Visvanathan points to Amitabh’s uncanny ability to create “human interest” encounters with the participants of show, in spite of his status as a living legend in Indian cinema.(6)

It is important to note the reasons for Amitabh’s uncanny ability to make a personal connection with the average television viewer cannot be understood by simply comparing his role as the host of KBC with the performance of other hosts of the Millionaire show such as Regis Philbin in the United States. Given Amitabh’s status as the undisputed megastar of Hindi cinema, we must recognize that his performance as the host of KBC is akin to the role of a cultural translator who skillfully connects texts with audiences by drawing upon their common understanding of the codes and conventions of old and new genres.

Following Amitabh’s success as the host of KBC on Star TV, a variety of game shows and reality shows on competing networks featured other famous movie stars from the Hindi film industry. To get a share of the advertising pie in the 9:00 p.m. primetime slot that was all but owned by KBC on Star Plus, Zee TV began airing its own game show called Sawaal Dus Crore Ka (A Question of Ten Crores) with the noted character actor Anupam Kher in the host seat. Although Zee TV had upped the prize money stake by ten times over what Star TV offered contestants on KBC, the ratings for Sawal Dus Crore Ka remained poor. Anupam Kher was soon replaced by the well-known heroine Manisha Koirala, but the show failed to take off. Over at SaBe TV, a new game show called Jab Khelo Sab Khelo (When You Play, We All Play) was launched during the daytime with the popular television personality Shekar Suman at the helm of affairs. Sony TV introduced its own game show called Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke with superstar Govinda threatening to give Amitabh Bachchan and KBC a run for the advertising money.

In 2002, Sony TV quickly followed up on the success of Chappar Phaad Ke with a reality/game show hybrid called Kahin naa Kahin Koi Hai (Someone, Somewhere) featuring Madhuri Dixit — the #1 heroine in Hindi cinema during the 1990s. Known as K3H, for short, the show took the traditional concept of arranged-marriages into television land by bringing together young men and women, along with their families, and helping them find a life partner over a span of four episodes.

In this essay, I have chosen focus on Amithabh Bacchan’s role as the host of KBC not because I believe that KBC is the most “Indian” game show on television. Clearly, other game shows like Chappad Phar Ke with Govinda, and reality shows like K3H with Madhuri Dixit playing the role of the host are equally, if not more, “Indian” in their format, content and character. Rather, I focus on KBC because it appears to be an extreme illustration of commonly held view that internationally-syndicated game shows and reality TV shows in India are cheap and vulgar imitations of popular American television genres. Yet, when we look closely at Amitabh Bacchan’ role as the host and his creative enlisting of “computer-ji’s as a sidekick, it quickly becomes clear why many Indian viewers did not see KBC as a copy of a globally-successful franchise, even though most of them were well aware of the existence of other versions of the Millionaire show around the world.

Notes and Links
“Murdoch’s Millionaire Fight,” BBC News, September 21, 2000. Online at: BBC NEWS.
“Survival of the Fittest,” India Today, October 10, 2001. Online at India Today.
These postings are listed online at
Emphasis mine. This posting is also listed online at
Shiv Visvanathan, “The Crorepati Narratives,” Economic and Political Weekly, August 26-September 2, 2000. Online at: EPW.

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India’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire

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What the Arab World Should be Watching

by: Nabil Echchaibi / Indiana University

I still cherish the memory of my old shortwave radio tucked underneath my bed when I was in Morocco. I rejoiced over the crackling sound of the Big Ben announcing the latest news bulletin of the BBC in Arabic and relished every news report on Radio France Internationale. If you want foreign news, tune in to Moroccan media; if you want news on Morocco, tune in to foreign media, Moroccans often joked.

These were the pre-Al-Jazeera times when the only international broadcasters had a welcome base in major Western media institutions. Today, the popularity of these once vital news sources is receding dramatically as more regional news operations in the Arab world are reclaiming their own audiences with vengeance. The BBC’s commanding influence in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s has plummeted to a meager 10 percent so much so that the Foreign Office of the British Parliament has asked the BBC to start a news channel in Arabic based in the Middle East. It is still early to determine how such a venture will fare, but one thing is certain: the international news broadcasting war is underway in the Arab world, and it does not bode well for the sanctity of news balance.

This news saga began when Al-Jazeera, a satellite news network in Qatar, best known in the West for airing the controversial tapes of Osama bin Laden, became isolated as an example of dangerous and inflammatory reporting in the aftermath of September 11. The tiny news operation, however, has been hailed in the Arab world since its inception in 1996 for its critical and innovative reporting on social, economic and cultural issues, which other Arab national and satellite media working under tight state control had never dared to cover.

Here is yet another example, so we are told, of a transparent clash of cultures that only reinforces the widely propagated idea that cultural differences between the West and the East are primordial and irreconcilable. Journalistic cultures and differing perspectives of what constitutes news are used symptomatically to draw our attention to a much bigger problem. Consider these sporadic headlines on Al-Jazeera before September 11: “Glasnost In the Gulf”; “Al-Jazeera: CNN Of the Arab World”; “Al-Jazeera TV Leads the New Arab Free Press.” Now compare those with these recent headlines: “Bush’s New War Room”; “News or Propaganda? Courting Controversy”; “What the Muslim world is Watching.”

When Al-Jazeera became international headline news, its popularity was restricted to post September 11 coverage in which the station was pitted against American media and the ideals of Western objective journalism. The controversy about Al-Jazeera should be examined as a result of differing political perspectives and not as an extension of an essentialist conflict of cultures as many critics have so readily concluded. Fouad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a frequently consulted source on Arab affairs on American media, is convinced Al-Jazeera has a political and religious agenda that is far from being innocuous. The station’s reporters, he complains, are “a fiercely opinionated group, most are pan-Arabists-nationalists of a leftist bend committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world–or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” In a 6,000-word article in the New York Times titled: “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” the longest article to have appeared in the newspaper on Al-Jazeera and the most frequently cited as well, Ajami seems to be sounding the drums of doom, granting Al-Jazeera more credit than what it really deserves and using a sensational headline to compound the impact of the station that is limited to only Arabic-speaking viewers. The world Muslim population today is about 1 billion, 200 million, of which Arabs account only for 250 million.

While Al-Jazeera is not a perfect news channel–it is not clear whether such a thing exists or might exist–it has provided a much needed alternative to bland political reporting by state-controlled channels that are notorious among Arabs for their government twaddle and their detached and staid reporting style. Even a channel such as MBC, a satellite network owned by the brother-in-law of the king of Saudi Arabia and on the air since 1989, has failed to offer quality news programming critical of political regimes and popular culture. MBC has recently started a 24-news network to compete with Al-Jazeera, but its ownership already undermines the editorial independence of its reporters. In 1996, Al-Jazeera sprung up out of an aborted deal between the Saudi-owned channel Orbit and the Arabic service of the BBC. Most of Al-Jazeera’s reporters were working for the BBC, and many of them have been trained in England or the United States.

In fact, Al-Jazeera’s news style resembles that of any U.S. news network, including CNN and Fox News. One of its most popular news talk shows, Opposite Direction, is modeled after CNN’s Crossfire where guests with extremely opposite views engage in a heated and sometimes deafening discussion on such issues as religious extremism, polygamy, freedom of expression, women’s rights, Arab politics, Palestinian-Israeli conflict: all taboos on regular Arab television. Critics of Al-Jazeera charge that such programs are used by the station to inflame passions and galvanize anti-American and anti-semitic sentiments, already manifest in the “Arab Street.” While the charge is highly questionable as Al-Jazeera is only reflecting existing realities within the Arab world that are often understood outside of a larger context. The same can be said about some programs on American radio and television that feature guests with disparaging and highly controversial comments, which may or may not reflect the opinions of their audiences. If blame has to be assigned anywhere, then it should be directed at the demented world of 24-hour news networks that feeds on lurid coverage of news and issues to secure profits. Al-Jazeera is just another example of this trend, except that since 1996, the station has been swimming in uncharted waters in the Arab world with no real competition to put pressure on its performance.

Pressure has been coming rather from Arab governments dissatisfied with the station giving voice to political dissidents and digging for social problems. Many of these governments have either closed the Al-Jazeera bureau in their capitals or, as in the case of some Gulf countries, instructed their companies not to use Al-Jazeera for their advertising needs. When the United States joins this list, it puts itself in an incriminating position, which some Arabs might interpret as double standard politics, an already well-established view in the Middle East.

If the Arab world is to modernize and free itself from the social and cultural stagnation it has been mired in, then it needs more channels like, or better than Al-Jazeera. Arabs need to feel there is a public forum for the expression of their views, both extreme and moderate. Demonizing, instead of constructively criticizing, the only attempt to do so, particularly at this important historical juncture, will prove dangerous and counter productive. The recent satellite news explosion in the region is nothing but a deafening cacophony and an all too familiar story. The Saudi Al-Arabiyya and Al-Ekhbariya, the Emirati Abu-Dhabi Television, and the Lebanese Al-Hayat remain constrained by their direct state ownership and editorial control. The U.S. government has joined the melee recently by launching a multi-million dollar news network of which the name, Al-Hurra (‘The Free One’), reveals much about its expected performance in the region.

The old days of shortwave radio, as liberating as they were, are decidedly over, but would the television news alternative from the Arab world prove as vindicating of the old official line which seems to be hiding behind the sleek garb of technology? Al-Jazeera needs a real competitor so it never loses sight of its original mission to expose the other opinion.

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