Four Strategies for Media Reform

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fractal Landscapes

Fractal Landscapes

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, first started hawking their wares in 1997, they met with blithe indifference from their most likely clients. Executives at Internet portals, such as Yahoo!, said they were intrigued by the technology but unsure of its commercial potential. One of the darlings of the Internet economy, Yahoo! was at that time escalating the sale of banner ads on its homepage and privileging commercial sites in its search engine protocols. Other Internet portal executives likewise demurred when approached by Page and Brin, with one explaining, “As long as we’re 80 percent as good as our competitors, that’s good enough. Our users don’t really care about search.” That statement proved apocryphal, of course, as software critics began to enthuse about Google soon after it launched in 1998, helping to make it the world’s leading search engine in less than two years. At every turn, company executives attributed their success to a distinctive technology that allowed Google to track “back links,” but what is less commonly mentioned is that the service succeeded in part because its search engine was nimble and lean, less burdened by commercial prerogatives that sought to capture and guide web users towards particular content. With a homepage that featured a minimalist prompt on an almost blank page, Google privileged the word or phrase entered by the computer user, opening a gateway to links that helped her to make sense of the rapidly proliferating corpus of online entertainment and information. Even to this day, the service retains a sleek, simple homepage, the very antithesis of Yahoo!, AOL, or CNN.

Google’s pull media technology is popular largely because it addresses at least three noteworthy and enduring aspirations among media audiences. The first is a desire to escape at times from the world of commercial imagery. The second is a longing to create meaningful patterns and linkages in an era of symbolic excess. And the third is a yearning to counteract the imperatives of push media, which seek out audiences in order to corral them within a universe of proprietary content. Such aspirations are also manifested in the popularity of other recent technologies, such as TiVo, DVR, and podcasting, suggesting that audiences value diversity and intelligibility despite U.S. media’s current emphasis on synergy and cross-promotion.

Using these audience aspirations as a point of reference, Thomas Streeter and I have recommended four strategies for media reform in the United States.[i] The first calls for an aggressive expansion of non-commercial services to be funded both by the FCC’s upcoming auction on spectrum reallocations as well as a modest tax on commercial users of the public airwaves. Instead of engaging in dramatic David-vs.-Goliath struggles over primetime TV content or News Corps market share, it seems more reasonable to work toward the expansion of alternative resources. If our society is to be truly innovative, then we need structural diversity in media, media organized in a variety of ways, not just more and more outlets that are all following the same principle of delivering audiences to advertisers. Is one public television service enough? One community radio station? Or one or two severely underfunded cable access channels? Are reliable, non-commercial Internet resources available regarding such crucial topics as health, environment, and workplace safety? We need to expand the number of non-commercial services wherever possible but we should at the same time emphasize structural innovation: not just more public television or radio, but more kinds of public TV or radio. Why is there nothing like Britain’s Channel Four in the US? The terms “commercial” and “public” have become inadequate to describe all the different structural possibilities; we need terms adequate to the task of engendering a new era of experimentation in media.

Secondly, it seems important to support and expand the legal protection of ideas as a public resource, observing that creativity, critique, and even comedy rely upon an open circulation of ideas. Wherever possible, we need to support and extend initiatives that explicitly foreground these issues not simply as challenges to corporate conglomeration or media concentration but as fundamental questions of value attached to cultural and historical traditions of personhood. Sometimes this might mean public funding for alternative documentary production; at other times it might mean legal efforts to establish a Creative Commons or Pat Aufderheide’s and Peter Jaszi’s campaign to change the “rights clearance culture.” Regardless of the particulars, the focus should be on encouraging creativity and personal expression rather than commercial viability or political correctness. Although considered unfashionable in some intellectual circles, questions of selfhood are powerful motivating issues that are often based upon associations between free inquiry, open access, and personal expression. Given that romantic notions of the creative self crucially hinge on such associations, it seems especially important to mount a sustained movement to expand public rights related to the circulation of ideas.

The promotion of alternative media resources and the extension of public rights will most likely encourage a further expansion of symbolic production and circulation in a society already characterized by semiotic excess. How then is one to make sense of the flood of information, culture, and entertainment? Our third strategy proposes that public money go to develop or to license search engine software that would sort results so as to allow non-commercial navigation of the Internet. Google, for all its merits, is reliant on revenues from advertisers and is therefore reluctant to encourage its users to sift commercial from non-commercial search results. Consequently, one is deluged with commercial come-ons when searching online for health information on topics such as cholesterol, nutrition, or pre-natal care. A public search service would operate in the tradition of public libraries by emphasizing public access and user needs rather than promotion and sales. Commercial sites could be filtered out or perhaps sorted by even finer-grained categories related to the goals and institutional character of the web site creator, so that, say, a politician’s web site would fit in a different category from a professor’s or a library’s. Likewise, the government should begin to prod broadcasters, cable networks, and satellite services towards providing all citizens with timely and easily searchable information regarding the upcoming television and radio programming. Elite services, such as TiVo are pioneering these functions, but it will take a political effort to ensure that they become broadly available so that audiences can make sense of their options at any given time without their access being shaped by corporate prerogatives.

Our fourth proposal is less a matter of public policy than of political strategy. Taking a leaf from the corporate world, we believe that progressive groups, institutions, and even businesses should build alliances under the rubric of particular “brands”. Whole Earth[ii] is one enormously successful example of a brand (founded by Stewart Brand) that brings together under its umbrella a range of publications, websites, goods, and services. One may not agree with its politics, but the strategy is one that has operated successfully in various contexts, from bricks and mortar to clicks and portals, for close to forty years. People want information, enlightenment, and entertainment, but they also want to associate themselves with particular political agendas. They will do this by voting, petitioning, and protesting, but they will also do it through the consumption of specific products. As activists, we need to attend to the important work of building linkages that are flexible and far-reaching, what one might refer to as “left branding.” The linkages also need to be intelligible to broad audiences. Tilting at Time Warner windmills may be less important than building “brand” identities for politically progressive products and cultural resources. Some of these resources might be produced by progressive organizations while others might be available from the very conglomerates that seem willing to cater to the interests of niche consumers. By helping citizens make connections between offerings in the cultural marketplace we can enhance the availability and visibility of alternative texts, products, and services.

In our estimation, media reform advocates often expend tremendous energy attacking conglomerates and advocating regulatory restraints, neither of which squarely addresses the desires of media audiences. We hope that, on the other hand, a reform agenda might be built on the principle of expanding non-commercial media resources and making them more easily accessible and intelligible to citizens, making them more public. Only in this way might we build an alternative media universe that, like the Google homepage, privileges the user’s expressed interests as the central point of reference.

[i] Michael Curtin and Thomas Streeter, “Media” in Richard Maxwell, ed., Culture Works: Essays on the Political Economy of Culture. Cultural Politics Series, Toby Miller, Bruce Robbins, and Andrew Ross, series editors, U of Minnesota P, 2001, pp. 225-249.
[ii] Whole Earth Magazine.

Image Credits:
1. Fractal Landscapes

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Reinventing Public Media

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

PBS Logo

PBS Logo

Previous columns on media reform have generated a good deal of comment, as well as some thoughtful and even playful criticisms of reform advocates as a ponderous crowd of self-interested mandarins who simply hate what everyone else loves — television. Quite correctly, John Hartley describes the medium as curious, mischievous, adventurous, licentious, and more. Its sheer unruliness is one of its great attractions, and John is right to contend that this unruly aspect more than any other is what makes TV a popular medium.

On the other hand, television is also serious business, offering up its audiences for exchange in the marketplace. Whether those audiences can in fact be enumerated, graded, and delivered to advertisers is the subject of much debate, but nevertheless the organization of television as a meaning-making institution is very much influenced by this second aspect of television. As a result, we get to see some things, but not others, and what we do get to see is presented to us as if it sprouted from the earth barely tainted by commercial calculation. Most viewers understand the games being played, but their influence over the institution remains limited.

Which brings me to a third aspect of television: politics. Although I’m well aware that as good postmodern critics we must acknowledge the personal as political, it’s nevertheless important to recall another rather old-fashioned notion of politics as an arena of contest and deliberation over the disposition of social resources. So even though I agree with John that political pugilism on TV talks shows and news coverage of the US politics is largely comic opera, I nevertheless think it important to hold television responsible for this second notion of politics as much as the first.

Why, for example, has the debate over Social Security spiraled into a predictable cycle of tired sound bites and political one-upsmanship, when in fact this is an issue of epochal importance? Is it due to the cold calculation of political operatives or is it due to the fact even well-intentioned politicians and activists realize they can’t get a fair hearing for effective alternatives, since it would require discussing interlinked issues regarding Medicaid, private medicine, and our regressive tax structure? The current media system would simply melt down in the face of such complexity, and consequently we’re likely to muddle along with comic opera when in fact the fate of the social welfare system is at stake.

So even though one might agree that television is an unruly and popular medium, it is also a medium of exclusions. It excludes deliberation on important social issues and it marginalizes activists whose ideas are hard to capture in six-second sound bites. It furthermore excludes programs for audiences that fall outside of its key demographics, preferring to speak to viewers with significant purchasing power. The exclusions built into US broadcasting operate in the realm of entertainment as well as information, as network executives slavishly follow programming trends in pursuit of relatively similar audiences, so that police procedurals and reality programs now saturate the airwaves, making a program like Desperate Housewives seem like a daring departure from the norm, at least for the moment. Cable programming is likewise redundant with only occasional exceptions. This is not to say that all or even most commercial broadcasting is bad, but it is undeniable that American television demands very specific styles of creativity, so that it is all too common to hear people like Dave Chapelle, Ben Karlin, or Steven Bochco fantasizing about other media venues where they might ply their trade. Thus, it’s not simply audiences that deserve alternatives; it’s the creative community as well.

As one considers television reform, it therefore makes sense to think across genres and to imagine multiple channels that might serve diverse audiences and artists. One of PBS’ great shortcomings has been its status as a lightning rod for criticism because it is assumed that any single program it telecasts is common property, an expression and/or representation of the people. As we consider prospects for reform, why not advocate four or five public TV channels and a similar number of radio channels, so that we might shed the illusion of a people in favor of a country with many voices?

Although such an agenda seems ambitious, Allison Perlman suggests that reformers go even further, pressing for reform of commercial television, and Anna McCarthy urges us to consider the appalling condition of print journalism as well. While I sympathize with both positions, I worry that debates regarding the former would become entangled with capitalist ownership issues and that the latter would invariably get bogged down in free speech issues. Public broadcasting seems a practical place to begin, in large part because it is an undeniably underdeveloped resource with tremendous potential. Moreover, it’s a propitious moment for genuine reform, since over the next decade, the transition to digital television will yield a windfall of tens of billions of dollars as the federal government auctions off spectrum space that used to belong to analogue broadcast stations. Many dreams are being hatched about how the money might be used, yet it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that this windfall should be applied to improvements of the very medium from which it derives. Combine this with a modest tax on broadcasters and one could establish an array of public channels with substantial and ongoing funding that would be relatively insulated from political pressure groups. Public media reform therefore seems a practical objective, and given widespread discontent with commercial television, it might have political legs, but it will only have legs if it is a truly popular alternative, as Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis have insightfully argued.[1] That will require breaking beyond the cultural and class biases of the current public system and transcending the exclusions of the commercial broadcasting, so that we might begin to invent new approaches to diverse genres and audiences.

Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis. “Moving Beyond the ‘Vast Wasteland’: Cultural Policy and Television in the United States.” Television and New Media 1.1 (2000): 95-115.

Image Credits:
1. PBS Logo

Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Free Press… media is the issue
“Turning Back the Tidycans,” a previous Flow article from Volume I, Issue 9.

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Turning Back the Tidycans

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most evenings my octogenarian, cigar-chomping, father-in-law likes to crank up the TV to full volume, pour a tall one, and settle into his easy chair where he methodically scans the news and talk channels, riding herd on the world from his perch in coastal Georgia. Sometimes he comments upon topics and pundits, while other times he immerses himself in Spanish-language newspapers from Miami or more recently in weighty tomes about Islamic history, culture, and politics. Yet whenever George Bush swaggers onscreen he casts a steely glance at the tube and unleashes a hailstorm of expletives at America’s worst nightmare — an evangelical, right-to-life President who at once seems oblivious to budgetary discipline and complicit with corrupt corporados. My father-in-law, Bob, is not a happy camper these days. Indeed, for the very first time in his life, he contemplated the loathsome prospect of voting for a Democratic Presidential candidate‚Ķ but then John Kerry was nominated and that was the last we heard of that.

Like other conservatives, Bob is unhappy with American media, politics, and the Republican Party, and he is not alone. Speaking for the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Christine Todd Whitman, in It’s My Party Too, laments the hijacking of the GOP by a small circle of interests who frame politics with a narrow “either/or” logic. This is perhaps what Jon Stewart so clumsily tried to challenge on Crossfire with his seemingly innocent appeal for an end to the pugilistic political talk shows. “You’re huuurting us,” Stewart intoned repeatedly. You’re squandering an opportunity, he implied. But an opportunity for what?

Tom Streeter in an earlier issue of Flow, pushed the question further, asking what specifically might improve television and politics in the US? Truth-based reporting? Stricter regulation of media conglomerates? A structural reform of the media industry? While each of these has merit, Streeter suggested that media reformers must be more explicit in their critique of ideology — that is, little “i” ideology, as in a cultural studies approach to the interrogation of the structures of feeling and knowing at work in American politics.

To that I would add another layer, since as Streeter points out, corporate media tends to obscure the workings of ideology so successfully. I would suggest that strategically, media reform should be organized around a central aspiration that seems to transcend ideological difference, an aspiration that has long festered among viewers across the political spectrum, but which now seems ever so urgent. Put simply, we aspire to be treated like adults — by the media and by our politicians.

Instead, our experience for more than fifty years has been that the paedocratic regime of television, as John Hartley refers to it, tends to treat audiences like children by withholding the explicit and the sexual along with the explicitly political and intellectual. In other words, US television institutions prefer to present the world to audiences in tidy “either/or” packages because they assume it’s all we can handle. This presumption was furthermore exploited by the Reagan administration and has been even more zealously embraced by the current administration. Yet with the Reaganauts tidiness was a political tactic, whereas the Bushies have turned it into an ideological screening device that both shapes the nature of political discourse and swaddles the public in a false sense of solipsistic security. The tidycans organize the political universe like bad television programs organize the moral universe — if it doesn’t fit, it’s simply not there. (And why bother to look for it?)

In contrast, Streeter yearns for a more honest engagement with political and cultural difference on screen. “I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of “Faith Under Fire,” a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour‘s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.”

One could hardly disagree, but even more, I think we — right, left, and center — yearn for media that seem genuinely engaged with ideas and curious about the world. In part, that may mean, as Toby Miller suggests, journalists and news organizations need to slap their ideologies on the table and get on with the business of actual reporting, rather than endless commentating. But it furthermore seems important to make the case for curiosity, complexity, serendipity, and generosity. It seems important to valorize the hard-won wisdom of maturity, a wisdom that is accepting of one’s limitations and therefore more willing to listen and explore. In essence we need media that don’t deliver ideas and events in tidy packages, media that instead blur boundaries and paint issues in shades of gray rather than black and white. Such a turn would require the expansion and reinvention of public media, creating new services, formats, and protocols that proceed from the assumption that audiences and citizens deserve to be treated as adults. It might furthermore exempt these non-commercial media from copyright and censorship restrictions, establishing intellectual free zones, where quotation, critique, and satire might flourish.

Such a suggestion is not based on a utopian ideal, but rather on the cold calculation that reforming commercial media is a heroic, but ultimately ill-fated venture. Instead reformers should promote the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy. For the only way to encourage genuine political dialog, avoid political gridlock, and turn back the tidycans is to find common ground for John and Bob and Chris and Tom. Where might that ground be? In public media shaped by the same spirit as critical and reflexive scholarship: “I begin here, but if I don’t end up somewhere else, then the journey wasn’t worth it.”

Media Reform Information Center
Free Press

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Murdoch’s Munificence

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Critics roundly denounce Rupert Murdoch as the most rapacious media baron of the current era, yet few have commented upon the fact that Sir Rupert is also our greatest media philanthropist. In fact, Murdoch himself may not recognize this or, more to the point, he might not relish the fact that over the past decade News Corporation has lavished more resources on the development of Asian television than any other private concern, with estimates now running close to $2 billion. This largesse has furthermore spurred the development of competing commercial services and has stimulated reforms within state media, thereby dramatically expanding the range of information and entertainment now available to Asian audiences. Of course, Murdoch’s initial ambition was hardly philanthropic, yet in retrospect one strains to see it as a commercial venture, since both his Star and Phoenix satellite services are deeply in the red and have yet to prove themselves consistently profitable.

Murdoch stunned the media critics worldwide when he first mounted a billion dollar takeover of Star TV in 1993, putting him at the helm of the first pan-Asian satellite platform. So taken was he with the stratospheric rhetoric of satellite TV that he regaled the investment and advertising communities with heady prophecies of a new Asian millennium of three billion consumers and an end to authoritarian regimes everywhere. As one might imagine Chinese leaders didn’t share the latter enthusiasm, slapping a ban on foreign satellite services shortly thereafter and rolling out competitive cable services that were offered for a fraction of the cost Star’s services. A humbled Murdoch was accordingly reminded that his fortunes in Asia would be shaped by forces on the ground as much as technologies in the skies.

Yet one can perhaps forgive Murdoch’s initial enthusiasm, for his investment was made during an era of heady optimism about the power of satellite television to transcend national borders and usher in at long last the global village that many had reportedly been waiting to join. Maps of satellite footprints were perhaps the most intoxicating representations of this TV mania, as in the case of Star they suggested blanket coverage across Asia, from Lebanon to the Philippines and south to Indonesia. Yet today, News Corp’s Asia satellite services look more like a patchwork quilt, and a somewhat tattered one at that. Indeed, over the past decade, Star’s effective coverage was dramatically refigured by infrastructural, political, and textual forces on the ground. And the Chinese case serves as an instructive example.

At the infrastructural level, initial expectations regarding a pan-Asian market were dashed by the cultural and linguistic diversity of audiences and tough competition from local and national broadcasters. Likewise complexity of product distribution networks on the ground undermined the possibility of expansive advertising strategies in the sky, since advertisers only wanted to pay for airtime in markets where their goods were available. In the end, they preferred targeted ad buys over pan-Asian appeals.

At the political level, Murdoch found the Beijing government was far more complicated than popular conceptions of authoritarianism might suggest. Chinese leaders could initiate sweeping changes to media policy on relatively short notice, yet such policies were executed with significant discretion at the local level, forcing Star to expend considerable resources currying the favor of provincial officials in a bid to gain carriage on their new cable systems. Moreover, within the national government many factions vie for power, ranging from reformers who are bent on experimentation to guardians of Mao’s peasant revolution. In such a context, global capital can at turns be welcomed as a productive force or reviled as an exploitative foreign element. Star’s image has repeatedly shifted with the political winds and Murdoch has periodically been chilled by the breeze.

At the textual level, Star has been forced to refashion and multiply its services, carefully targeting audiences and branding its products to fit the competitive environment in local media markets. Rather than appealing to a pan-Asian audience or even a pan-Chinese audience, Star has had to content itself with carving out market niches and surprisingly, one of those niches is as a venue for serious political talk on its joint venture Phoenix channel, aiming at an audience of only 140 million viewers in the eastern part of the mainland.

These three levels press relentlessly on News Corp’s Asian satellite services, as they attempt to strike a balance between economies of scale and the local particularities of existing media markets. Star’s delicate balancing act is at work in other countries and markets, as well, such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Since Murdoch first purchased the five-channel satellite platform, he has multiplied its services at an astounding rate, so that the company now manages 19 brands on more than 60 satellite channels. Rather than a singular pan-Asian juggernaut, Star instead provides a host of niche services targeted at a diverse range of viewers, and the sum of the parts still does not add up to a consistently profitable whole.

Such uneven performance is no doubt troubling, for Murdoch’s stated ambition is to put together the first viable global satellite network and then float a public stock offering in hopes of recouping his company’s massive investments. An important part of that portfolio will be Star and Phoenix, but many media executives in Asia confidentially wonder if either service will prove profitable over the long run. Indeed, to witness Murdoch kowtowing to Chinese leaders, currying the favor of provincial bureaucrats, and pandering to nationalist sentiments of Chinese audiences seems indicative of his anxieties about the future of his Asian ventures. Such uneasiness should no doubt invite revision of the cheeky characterization of Murdoch’s generosity at the outset of this essay, but it should also encourage us to reconsider simplistic notions of power that paint Murdoch as an omnipotent global media baron.

News Corporation
Media in China blog
Inside China

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Media Lag: The TV Revolution in Asia

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve traveled to Asia many times over the past decade, and if everything works flawlessly, the trip takes roughly 24 hours door-to-door from my home in Madison to a hotel room on the other side of the world. Then it usually takes another 72 hours before my body begins to adjust to the rhythms of Asia. In the semi-hallucinogenic haze of jet lag, one becomes acutely aware that America and Iraq figure little in the daily calculations of citizens in this part of the world. President Bush’s crusade against terrorism pales by comparison to more pressing concerns regarding democracy in East Asia, as citizens in both Hong Kong and Taiwan struggle for political autonomy and rights of free expression. Compared to Bush’s war on terrorism, these battles are just as epic in proportion and may in the long run be equally significant in their implications for the rest of the world.

Little of this registers in American media, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets of this city on four occasions over the past sixteen months demanding democratic reforms that had been promised them during the 1997 handover. Indeed, the largest demonstration drew more than half a million people, most of them educated middle class citizens who are usually touted as the very backbone of this city’s economic success. Recent elections likewise drew a record turnout, despite electoral ground rules that were heavily skewed to benefit Beijing loyalists. Resisting intense pressure from the mainland leadership, almost two-thirds of all votes were cast for democracy candidates, including a Yippiesque pundit known as “Long Hair” who, clad in a Che Guevara tee-shirt, refused to shake hands with the territory’s Chief Executive, choosing instead to recite a protest poem at their first official meeting.

Political passions in Taiwan likewise roil along at a fever pitch as the island emerges from a tumultuous presidential campaign last spring and heads into crucial legislative elections before the end of the year. Political sparring most centrally revolves around the island’s continuing assertion of independence in the face of more than a decade of pressure from Beijing to “reintegrate” with the motherland. As citizens of the Chinese world’s first and only democratic society, most Taiwanese seem willing to risk full-scale attack from the PRC rather than surrender hard-won rights of free expression. In fact, opinion polls show that support for independence has grown significantly over the past five years despite the volatile state of cross-straits relations.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, PRC politics are undergoing significant transformation due to recent maneuvering within the Communist Party prompting the unexpected departure of Jiang Zeming. This has consolidated the influence of a reform faction that is pushing for more institutional transparency and social welfare spending in a society predominantly characterized by crony capitalism and government corruption. Depending on whom one listens to, China is either teetering on the brink of economic greatness or economic ruin. It is at once the most powerful economy in Asia and perhaps the most fragile, with some experts estimating that more than a hundred million of its citizens have taken to the road in search of work, while hundreds of thousands of others have stayed at home to organize demonstrations for economic equity and social justice. Sit-ins, marches, and militant clashes with authorities are now regular (though underreported) occurrences, as government officials scramble to respond to the rising tide of protests.

Such a world is a long way from the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama and others anticipated only a decade ago. At the time, it was suggested that the most momentous decisions in the post-Cold War world would revolve around a set of rather mundane choices: Coke or Pepsi? Sony or Panasonic? MTV or ESPN? Media metaphors flowed easily then. Satellite TV and the dawning of the Worldwide Web seemed to augur a collapsing of boundaries and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism, leading to an era of global peace and prosperity. Implicit in such speculation were presumptions of the development paradigm that had been so thoroughly discredited by scholarly criticism and practical application only four decades ago. Yet in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, US leaders during the 1980s and1990s contended that that trade liberalization, new technologies, and Western expertise would unleash the productive power of lesser-developed nations. They likewise resurrected the “end of ideology” as the “end of history,” which played as a companion theme to the “weightless economy” and the “global communication grid.”

Of course the worm turns and now, in the new millennium, cultural and economic difference again seem as intractable as jet lag, as global communication technologies seem to be engendering a disjunctive set of social relations that one might refer to as media lag. That is, rather than fostering spontaneous development, television exposure seems to be exacerbating tensions between global imagery and local experience. So for example, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, it is commonly suggested by scholars, journalists, and government officials that the recent diffusion of television throughout the Middle East has fueled a wave of resentments regarding disparities within the region, as well as between lifestyles East and West. Yet it’s important to note that this phenomenon can also be found in societies to the north, south, and east of Baghdad.

Indeed, television spread throughout Asia at a remarkable pace during the 1990s, adding an estimated two billion new viewers to the global audience. In China alone TV access has risen from virtually zero to some 90% of the population over the past twenty years. A medium that was originally intended to foster economic development, unify the country, and strengthen the bridge between the party and the people, has become a source of significant anxiety among leaders in Beijing, engendering debates over “rising expectations” and subsequent social conflict. A similar trajectory of rapid adoption has taken place in India and the Middle East where policy makers also fret that the rapid diffusion of television exerts intense pressure to deliver the fruits of economic and social development. Just as jet lag challenges one’s physical and mental capacities, so too does rapid diffusion seem to challenge the institutional capacities of Asian societies. In this state of disjuncture, disparities of wealth seem to take on a vivid significance in the lives of viewers. Rather than fostering aspirations for modernization and “development” (a desire to “catch up”), television makes uneven development fantastically apparent to TV’s newest audiences. Put another way, if one looks carefully at a map of the world’s proven oil reserves, it is glaringly obvious that resources in the Middle East dwarf the combined reserves of the rest of the world. Likewise, if one examines the geographic distribution of the world’s manufacturing workforce as a function of labor cost, one quickly is alerted to the significance of places like Guangdong province in China or Andra Pradesh in India. Now compare these global maps of resource distribution to maps of resource consumption, energy use, and per capita income. The disparities are stunning but nevertheless commonly pass without critical comment in the mainstream media. Yet even though television rarely acknowledges these disparities at an explicit level, it prismatically refracts them through the disjunctive delivery of fantasy images of consumption to the shantytowns and cramped quarters of the world’s working poor. Moreover, television’s fixation on female consumerism offers up relentless images of feminine agency that are commonly embraced by young women who leave behind the drudgery of familial servitude for a chance to migrate to the workshops of transnational capital. Social tensions therefore multiply beyond class issues to controversies over gender relations and “family values,” as well. Media lag like jet lag is therefore commonly experienced as intensified sensitivity to difference and change, and regardless of how one responds, all are exposed to social disparities and tensions that seem enduring despite television’s promises to the contrary.

It’s noteworthy then that the “end of ideology” coincided with the rise of development communications during the 1950s and that the “end of history” augured a mistaken revival of faith in the development paradigm since the 1990s. Yet we have neither transcended ideology nor history. The former remains important for its ability to reveal that which is concealed by the everyday operations of power, while the dialectics of history remind us that dramatic disparities of wealth inevitably invite revolutionary responses. It is therefore worth paying attention to the operations of both ideology and history as we reflect upon the recent growth of television viewing around the world. For in one sense, media lag invites ideological awareness despite (or perhaps because of) television’s fixation on abundance and consumerism. In another sense, media lag is an historical phenomenon, for the transformations that accompany new media often take time to register in social relations. Consequently, our preoccupation with broadband Internet and other digital technologies may be obscuring the fact that for much of the world the television revolution is only beginning.

Links of Interest
BBC on Asia-Pacific News
Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
Global Television

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