Over*Flow: Digital Humanity: Social Media Content Moderation and the Global Tech Workforce in the COVID-19 Era
Sarah T. Roberts / University of California, Los Angeles

Author’s Note: Over the past days, I have fielded many questions
asking about commercial content moderation work during the global coronavirus
(COVID-19) crisis. There are many aspects to consider, including location,
logistics and infrastructure, legal worker protections, and state-level
actions. As I have written and rewritten this article, I have needed to
repeatedly come back to update this article based on changing circumstances. At
this point, the evening of March 17, I will not fundamentally change it but
will continue to update it until it goes to press. My heart goes out to all of
those around the world who are touched by this disease: all of us

A small gathering at UCLA last week, in what we could not know at the time was likely to be the last of its kind for most of us for the foreseeable future, a group of scholars at all levels of career and life gathered with community activists, artists and others to respond to a conversation curated by Professor Patrik Svensson under the aegis of Humane Infrastructures, an appropriate context for what we were about to collectively experience, despite assuredly not having been on the horizon during the event’s planning.

For the purposes of this event I was asked, in what I have now come to regard as an uncanny bit of timing, to discuss technology labor forces dedicated to social media content moderation and/as infrastructure, prompting me to open my remarks with a nod to “human infrastructure” more generally. It is an exercise I find useful to my work but a metaphor or description that has serious limitations. And so I use it, while also applying to it various caveats, the first of which is simply that humans are humans. They are not pipe. They are not fiber. They are not, despite all attempts of management theorists of the early 20th century and gigwork proponents of the 21st, cogs to be replaced when one becomes worn, reducible to their motion study-documented singular movements, or blips on a delivery map.

Yet because the approach to provisioning labor for large-scale technology operations often takes on these overtones, it bears discussing labor forces as infrastructure, if for no other reason than to accurately account for them in the production chain of things like, in my case, social media, or manufactured goods, or textiles, or whatever the product or output may be. I also believe that gaining insight into corporate orientations toward such labor forces is helpful to develop a more thorough and sound critique of said orientations and the concomitant practices that emerge from characterizing workforce as infrastructure in the first place. In other words, we need to see how the firms see to make the most salient and effective critiques of their practices and credos.

I will cut to the chase of what many readers want to know: how is the pandemic of COVID-19, the coronavirus that is sweeping around the globe, impacting the moderation of social media. More to the point, your question may be, “Why is corona having an impact on moderation at all?” Let me give the briefest of overviews that I can to say that the practice of social media moderation happens at industrial scale with many of the transnational service outsourcing firms now involved, and with countless other players of lesser size at the table. It is a global system that involves labor pools at great geographic and cultural distance, as well as jurisdictional and legal remove, from where we might imagine the center of social media action is: Menlo Park, or Mountain View, or Cupertino or another Silicon Valley enclave.

The second thing to bear in mind is that there is a vast human workforce doing an incredible amount of high-impact content moderation for firms; my typical estimate (that I consider to be extremely conservative) is that the global moderation workforce is in the six figures at any given time, and I likely need to try to revise this number significantly. Yes, there are AI and computational tools that also conduct this work, but it is important to keep in mind that it is exceedingly difficult for those systems to work without human oversight or in the absence of humans vetting and doing manual removals, too.

Facebook's Announcement on March 16, 2020
Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.

This particular fragility has been seen most acutely today at Facebook, which announced yesterday evening that it would shut down as much of its operations as it could and have workers work from home when possible. In the case of their commercial content moderators, Facebook has explained that there are many cases in which workers cannot do their work effectively from home and the company is therefore moving to a much greater reliance on its AI tools and automated moderation systems. The switch in reliance upon automated removal appears to have occurred today, when vast numbers of users began reporting the deletion of benign and sometimes even newsworthy content (in many cases, about COVID-19). Confirmed by some representatives from Facebook is that there was a “bug” with some of the automated content removal systems that has now been corrected.[ ((It bears mentioning that there was some debate on Twitter about whether or not this bug was related to the letting go of human content moderators, with Guy Rosen of Facebook stating that it was not and former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos expressing skepticism. My guess is that the new widespread reliance on AI tools has already revealed and will continue to reveal a variety of hits a human would not make.))]

Professor Vaidhyanathan's Tweet
Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.

To understand this better, I will describe the general status quo for much of the top-tier American social media firms and their content moderation ecosystem.[ ((The operative phrase here is “top-tier”; many smaller firms have considerably fewer resources to put on moderation and may have devised other systems entirely to manage the bulk of their moderation needs. Two important examples of alternative systems are Reddit and Wikipedia, both of which rely on a huge network of volunteer community moderators whose interventions are user-facing and who are typically themselves close to the communities they moderate.))] The characteristics of the ecosystem is that it tends to be arranged with contract labor through third-party companies and has a global footprint. The firms have created their own network of call center-like facilities that form a web across the globe, and cover a massive array of linguistic, cultural, regional and other competencies and knowledge (although there are inevitable gaps and gaffes).

The distributed nature of the contract commercial content moderation system indeed allows for some degree of redundancy when it comes to issues of natural disaster or other catastrophic events that could take a center, a city or even a region offline. That said, most firms are at capacity when it comes to their screening needs, and the loss of a major site could very well impact quality. That appears to have happened in the last 72 hours, when Metro Manila and, indeed, much of the island upon which it is located, Luzon—a part of the Philippine archipelago that is home to 57 million people—went into quarantine. Reports the Singaporean Straits Times, “Police began closing off access to the Philippines’ sprawling and densely populated capital Manila, a city of some 12 million people, imposing a month-long quarantine that officials hope will curb the nation’s rising number of coronavirus cases.”

The Philippines is also the call center capital of the
world, and competes with India for the vast outsourced business of commercial
content moderation for the so-called Global North. In short, the Philippines is
where social media content goes to be screened.

Eleven days ago, I communicated with a reporter colleague to give my sense of how a virus-related shutdown in the Philippines could affect American social media giants. I told him that while a lot of the most irritating and highest-volume unwanted content (as deemed by the platforms) can be found and removed by automated tools—here I refer to spam, pornographic content, copyright violations, and other already known-bad material—they tend to be imperfect and blunt instruments whose interventions can be calibrated to be more sophisticated or to cast a wider net.[ ((See the work of Safiya U. Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Cathy O’Neill, Frank Pasquale, Joan Donovan and others who demonstrate that algorithmic interventions are deeply imbued with and shaped by a host of values, manipulation and bias, following key critiques of the politics of software by Wendy HK Chun, of computation by David Golumbia, after the fundamental question posed and answered by Langdon Winner that artifacts, indeed, have politics.))] But the loss of a major moderation site that would mean a switchover to reliance on these tools would invariably cause disruption in social media’s production chain, and could even potentially lead to quality issues perceived by users.

That appears to be the very case we saw today, where we see users become frustrated by false positives: cases where overzealous and undersophisticated AI tools aggressively remove reasonable content, because its judgment is too rudimentary. The alternative is also no alternative at all, for if the AI tools were turned off altogether, the result would be an unusable social media platform flooded with unbearable garbage, spam and irrelevant or disturbing content. One moderator interviewed in my book described the internet without workers like him as “a cesspool.”

Which, then, is the lesser of two evils, an overpoliced automated AI-moderated internet, or a “hole of filth” (as another Silicon Valley-based worker described it) of unbearable human self-expression? Ultimately, the firms will decide for the former, as it is powerful matter of brand protection and legal mandates (most from outside the United States) that will drive their choice in this matter. I suspect that it will be much of the public’s first contact to both the contours of content moderation on its platform, as well as how the disappearance virtually overnight of legions of humans doing this work has led to marked and immediate quality decline.

I return to the most important question, perhaps, that has been asked about this issue, which is why the work cannot simply be done by the workers from home. The answer, like everything about this issue, is complex. In many cases, such work can and is done at home. In the case of AAA social media firms, however, constraints like privacy agreements and data protection policies in various jurisdictions may preclude this. There is also a nontrivial infrastructure that goes into setting up a computing center with requisite hardware, software (internally developed and maintained systems) and routing of data. The call center locations themselves are often highly secure, with nothing allowed on the floor where workers are logged in. Working from home eliminates the ability for oversight and surveillance of workers and their practices, both what they are doing and what they are not, to the extent that can be achieved on-site. This alone is possibly a deal-breaker for moving the work home. In a moment of dark humor, one rightly cynical colleague pointed out that this is an event that, while likely wholly unimagined and unplanned, is allowing for a certain amount of stress testing of these tools at scale.

Bringing the work consisting of the rapid review of thousands of images and videos, many of which can be psychologically difficult and taxing, into the home also may be considered too much to ask of workers in a time of crisis. Workers in call centers rely on each other and their teams for support doing commercial content moderation, and may have access to an on-site or on-call therapist, counselor or other mental health professionals.[ ((Even when counselors are available, it is not always the panacea it may seem. Some workers contracted by Accenture discovered that what they presumed were private sessions with workplace therapists were actually reporting on those sessions to Accenture’s management, according to The Intercept.))] But it is also worth mentioning that many people already do this kind of work at home, whether as contractors or on microtask sites from anywhere in the world.[ ((See this report released just yesterday on the state of microwork in Canada, from the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group (TWIG), or an interview with sociologist Antonio Casilli on microwork in France.))]

Further, infrastructure differences will play into the picture locally. For example, European tech hub the Republic of Ireland has widespread penetration of at-home fixed broadband, whereas in the Philippines the story looks different. Here is where we return to the way the firms themselves view the matter of outsourced labor in what we can consider the production chain of social media: as a component in a production cycle characterized by the East to West flow of supply-chain logistics for manufactured goods. The model is one of just-in-time, in which all aspects of the process, from putting up a site to hiring in workers to the actual moderation itself, takes place as quickly and as “leanly” as possible, particularly for functions such as content moderation that are seen as a “cost center” rather than a “value-add” site of revenue generation.

Just-in-time supply-chain logistics may be being tested in other parts of the tech industry and in industries reliant on other types of manufactured products, when we consider the goods’ origin point (frequently East Asia, in general, and China, specifically, particularly for textile, tech and other material goods). Consider the recent shuttering of numerous retail chains (e.g., Apple Stores; Lululemon; Victoria’s Secret) not only as issues of lack of clientele or safety of employees, but one that may reflect a significant gap in the availability of goods making their way out of factories and across oceans: “Just how extensive the crisis is can be seen in data released by Resilinc, a supply-chain-mapping and risk-monitoring company, which shows the number of sites of industries located in the quarantined areas of China, South Korea, and Italy, and the number of items sourced from the quarantined regions of China,” reports the Harvard Business Review.

When we consider a social media production chain that is less material, perhaps, in terms of the product (user-facing content on a social media site) than an H&M fast fashion jacket or a pair of Apple AirPod Pros, the essential nature of the presence of humans in that chain is just as apparent as when a production line goes down for a month and no goods leave the factory. Here, where content moderators are both the product (in the form of their cultural and linguistic sense-making ability upon which their labor is frequently valued and sold) and the producer (in the form of the work they undertake), their impact of their loss in the production chain must be considered profound.

Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm
Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer.

In essence, what is supposed to be a resilient just-in-time chain of goods and services making their way from production to retail may, in fact, be a much more fragile ecosystem in which some aspects of manufacture, parts provision, and/or labor are reliant upon a single supplier, factory, or location. Just as it is in manufacturing, where a firm discovers that a part is made only in one factory and its going offline affects everything downstream, such is it decidedly the case for the fragile ecosystem of outsourced commercial content moderation and its concentration in areas of the world such as the Philippines. The reliance on global networks of human labor is revealing cracks and fissures in a host of supply-chain ecosystems. In the case of human moderators who screen social media, their absence is likely to give many users a glimpse, quite possibly for the first time, of the digital humanity that goes into crafting a usable and relatively hospitable online place for them to be. In the face of their loss, perhaps just when we need them the most—to combat the flood of misinformation, hate speech, and racism inspired by the global pandemic that is COVID-19 now circulating online—they are gone. Will we learn to finally collectively value this aspect of the human infrastructure just a little bit more than not at all?

Image Credits:

  1. Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.
  2. Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.
  3. Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer. Source: Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press, 2019)


Navigating the Unknown Risks Within the Content We Create and Consume
Kate Edwards/Geogrify LLC

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

When a cartographer builds a new map, they employ standard processes of selection, generalization, and symbolization while they are ever-cognizant that there are facts, variables and aspects of the representation that remain relatively unknown. This geographic uncertainty is not at all unlike the age-old notion of terra incognita (unknown territory) found on antique maps during the Age of Exploration, visibly noting where geographic knowledge was limited and where much uncertainty existed off the map edges. Certainly, the romance of such a historical connection was one strong appeal for my own study of cartography (besides also an ongoing love affair with J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth). But in today’s world where the physical geography has all been thoroughly mapped, remapped and digitized to incredible detail, the notion of terra incognita becomes less relevant and replaced perhaps by a more appropriate, broader concept of periculum incognita, or rather, unknown risks.

In the modern context of global business, product creation and community interaction across boundaries, the idea of periculum incognita is directly relevant as there certainly exist many unseen challenges and complications to globalization and culturalization practices. Many large-scale business risks have been well-identified and explained ad infinitum – such as economic conditions, local regulatory policies, market research on consumer preferences, and so forth. But the risks of which I’m particularly concerned are those emerging from the deep-level geopolitical and cultural aspects of a local market: the qualities of a culture that are highly meaningful to local consumers yet typically very difficult for an outsider to discern. Such subtle business risks often escalate in a direct relationship to the depth at which a local culture is offended by an issue. In other words, the greater the local consumer’s devotion to their deep cultural values and practices, the greater the potential for content to cause an unintended reaction (i.e., usually a negative response).

How does a content creator begin to map out the unknown risks of a local culture? While this space is insufficient to go into all the required detail, I can at least offer these three basic steps:

1. Be aware: Comprehension of the reality of geopolitical and cultural risks in content is often 50% of the challenge in starting to address them. The majority of professionals with whom I work are mostly unaware of the implications of their creative choices. And that makes sense – they’re focused on creation of great games, etc. and not worrying about how their vision impacts any particular group. And yet, their decisions can and will have repercussions on a cultural level so at least being mindful of the possibility can be empowering.

2. Be proactive: Many businesses realize, and my own experience with cultural issues confirms, that it is far less expensive and disruptive to find and resolve a potentially problematic content issue as early as possible during production than to deal with it far downstream. So stepping back from the creative process once in a while and asking the hard questions about potential cultural compatibility can save a tremendous about of time and money.

3. Be committed: Ultimately, the key to long-term success in managing the geopolitical and cultural issues is to make the commitment to invest in resources, training and processes that are necessary to stay aware and proactive.

Over the years, one comment I’ve often heard in response to my admonitions and advice about such culturalization issues goes something like this: “This geopolitical and cultural stuff is all very fascinating but it’s not very applicable to my creative work.” Well, when we consider the wide range of businesses, there are some that are clearly more susceptible to unknown geopolitical and cultural content risks. Content-intensive products and information services (such as games, movies, television, web sites, reference works, educational/training materials, marketing/PR materials) are especially vulnerable by their very nature, which includes heavy use of text, icons, clip art, maps, flags, photos, videos, and so forth. By this broad definition, virtually any content that must communicate to local customers carries potential risk.

If you still harbor doubts about the pervasiveness of these issues, consider how a single, specific geopolitical issue can impact such a diverse group of content and products in the following example.

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

Known to cartographers for decades as a very problematic issue, the region of Jammu and Kashmir in Central Asia has proven very complex for businesses which produce and/or deploy maps of the region as part of or in association with their products. Unknown to many companies that do business in India, the local government has regulations against the use of an “unapproved” map; i.e., if the region of Jammu and Kashmir is not represented wholly as an Indian state (which is the assertion of the Indian government’s geopolitical imagination), then government and consumer backlash are certain outcomes, such as the following examples:

News Media: CNN was accused of doctoring a web-based map to remove Jammu and Kashmir as Indian territory, which yielded much backlash from Indian customers. Fox News made a similar error in January of 2001.

Food Products: The Cadbury company produced advertising for their Temptations chocolate bar in India which compared the confection to the Kashmir dispute, complete with a map of Kashmir in their marketing that stated: “I’m good. I’m tempting. I’m too good to share. What am I? — Cadbury’s Temptations or Kashmir?”

Cadbury Ad

Cadbury Ad

Software: Microsoft first discovered this issue when a time zone control panel feature in the Windows 95 operating system was incorrect from the Indian perspective, resulting in a costly recall, fix and reissue of the software.

© Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft Error

Educational Toys: An educational toy globe with electronic features, the Quantum Leap Explorer Globe, mistakenly showed Jammu and Kashmir as an independent country distinct from India and Pakistan and resulted in public backlash within India.

Controversial Educational Toy

Controversial Educational Toy

If one considers that Jammu and Kashmir is but one of many, many possible geopolitical and cultural issues and that maps are just one type of content that could potentially hinder the intent of creative content in a locale, it becomes clear that no particular type of enterprise is truly immune from the effects of an unforeseen, potentially damaging content issue.

Proactive measures can be taken to avert a loss of revenue and perhaps worse, a loss of public image, if the creative forces involved are committed to take proper steps and make minimal investments in being mindful of this dynamic. With even a modest amount of awareness around the potential risks, coupled with a desire to strive to deliver positive experiences for local consumers, it’s entirely possible to maintain one’s core creative vision while thinking more geostrategically. And in turn, you just might take some of the incognita out of the periculum.

Image Credits:
1. Jammu and Kashmir
2. Jammu and Kashmir
3. Cadbury Ad
4. Microsoft Error: (author’s screen grab)
5. Controversial Educational Toy

Please feel free to comment.

Transnational Television Dramas and the Aesthetics of Conspicuous Localism
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Hibana: Spark

Hibana: Spark

This semester, graduate students in my seminar and I started a Global Television Club, where we screen pilot episodes of television series from around the world. Specifically, we selected recent, high-end drama series co-produced and released (more or less) simultaneously in multiple territories. Our goal was more than entertainment or familiarity with non-U.S. television cultures: instead, we sought to identify common stylistic, thematic, and generic tendencies that might cut across these transnational television dramas, regardless of country-of-origin. Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, our investigation didn’t get far, and we are planning on continuing our investigation in the fall. Still, I include several of the observations that emerged out of the club’s viewings and discussions below.

Within the global television industries, little doubt exists that high-end transnational television drama is a new and growing phenomenon, enabled by the streaming ambitions of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), as well as several dozen smaller streaming companies from around the world, including the BBC, Arte in France, ZDF in Germany, and iQiyi in China, to name only a few. In 2017, C21 Media, one of the leading international television trade magazines, published a report assessing the trend and examining its impact of television drama production in numerous markets worldwide.



In television studies, we have been hesitant to identify this new trend, perhaps because of the contentious status of the concept of “quality” in a field based on the idea that all forms of culture expression can be inherently valuable, and that the designation of “quality” or “artistic” acumen are mere discourses of classed, gendered, and raced social distinctions. I largely sympathize with this perspective; I find the critiques of quality in television programming that folks like Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman’s make in Legitimating Television—that many of the features of supposedly high-quality television dramas are dismissed or ignored when they appear in women’s genres—quite convincing. Nevertheless, I do believe that we are seeing the emergence of new, transnational discourse of quality television within the programming industries—what I would call a certain form of “industry lore”—that, together with the technological and economic structures of the global media industries, are ushering in an era of high-budget transnational television series. It is this trend that I want to analyze here, while bracketing for the moment questions of quality or art.

Co-produced transnational television dramas, released in multiple territories, are certainly nothing new. They have frequently featured a limited number of genres, particularly historical miniseries with characters and stories that resonate across national borders. In Europe in the 1980s, this strategy was deployed in order to leverage production budgets from multiple territories and compete with high-end, imported U.S. television programs. While this specific model of co-production led to derisive comments about culturally vacuous “Europudding” miniseries, it is also the case that a number of well-received and popular series emerged from this model.

Descendants of the Sun

Descendants of the Sun

Much the same economic and cultural logic is at work in the surge in today’s transnational television dramas as well, but several features of the current moment in transnational television drama are unique as well, most obviously the budgets. Babylon Berlin, co-produced by Sky and ARD for simultaneous streaming release in the UK and Germany, is the most non-English series ever produced. Occupied, a Norwegian political thrilled co-produced by Arte and simultaneously released in France is the most expensive Norwegian show ever. Likewise for the Korean series Descendants of the Sun, co-produced and simultaneously released by Chinese streaming service iQiyi. And so on.

The global streaming wars between Amazon and Netflix drive these budgets: this year, Netflix will put about $8 billion into original programming worldwide, as will Amazon, while HBO, Hulu, and Sky are pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars each. In addition, there are hundreds of medium sized streaming services around the world that are pouring in money as well.

Hotel Beau Séjour

Hotel Beau Séjour

All of this production money leads to a second significantly different feature on contemporary transnational television drama, what I would call “conspicuous localism.” A major part of the expense of these series comes from the variety of locations in which they are shot and the extensive use of HD cinematography to create a strong sense of place, unlike most co-productions in television’s past. The Icelandic series Trapped, co-produced with German broadcaster ZDF, features cascading shots of massive, snowy mountains; the Japanese series Hibana: Spark opens with a craning shot of pedestrian mall in Osaka with green mountains in the distance, and much of the subsequent action takes place in the Kichijoji and nearby Kami Shakuji areas of Tokyo. This conspicuous localism is further reinforced by local-language production, even to the point of shooting in subnational dialects (witness the Belgian Arte co-production in Flemish, Hotel Beau Séjour), as well as plotlines and themes that often require very specific cultural knowledge, such as the Japanese two-team stand-up comedic form, manzai, which is at the heart of the story in Hibana: Spark.

This sense of conspicuous localism is for me the most interesting cultural trend in transnational television drama today. I call it “conspicuous,” riffing on the idea “conspicuous consumption,” because I believe that this form of localism serves quite specific audience and industry needs that are all about appealing to others, much as conspicuous consumption is done to signal to others. The conspicuous localism of the cinematography, storylines, and languages of contemporary transnational television drama are, I believe designed to appeal to a cosmopolitan international audience. For subscribers to streaming platforms, dramas with a strong sense of authenticity offer cosmopolitan cultural capital to affluent viewers in a way that less conspicuously local production strategies do. Given the nationalist and ethnic backlashes against globalization and immigration in many Western nations, the consumption of seemingly authentic media culture from abroad is a way to signal to one’ self and others one’s cosmopolitanism.

Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin

Meanwhile, for creative industries around the world, conspicuous localism is a way to promote local tourism, as well as to spotlight and expand local creative industries. For the nation-of-origin, high-end television dramas serve nationalist ends that are similar to the opera houses of the 19th and 20th centuries. Much as opera houses and locally-produced operas in the national language became markers of a nation’s modernity in earlier centuries, so are transnational television dramas markers of the maturity of a nation’s creative industries in the 21st century.

Image Credits:
1. Hibana: Spark
2. Trapped
3. Descendants of the Sun
4. Hotel Beau Séjour
5. Babylon Berlin

Please feel free to comment.

Know Your Audience: The Quest for Digitally Addressable Systems in India
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin


DTH Players

In the shift from analog to digital television in India, much of the discussion in the media industries and policy circles has focused on whether the new digital addressable system (DAS) will be a revolutionary transformation in the delivery of programming services, as its proponents claim, or a mirage that critics argue the Indian cable industry will be chasing in futility for years to come. This is a debate I have covered more extensively in an earlier Flow essay.

To briefly summarize, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011 made it mandatory for analog Cable TV systems in India to switch over to a new Digital Addressable System (DAS) by December 2014. The advocates of DAS view digital addressability as an ideal new technology to overcome the problems posed by the current analog systems in the cable television industry, and to offer television content providers and audiences the ability to directly interact and communicate with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you get your TV through broadcasting, cable, direct-to-home satellite systems or the internet, direct addressability seems to be the fix-it-all solution to problems of analog television like limitations of bandwidth, delivery of digital HD, 3D, interactive services, targeted advertising, standardization of TV rates, reliable billing practices and so on. (( Consultation Paper on “Issues related to Implementation of Digital Addressable Cable TV Systems” ))

For the critics of DAS, the elevation of digital addressable system as a technical fix to all the problems in Indian television is rather problematic. Their criticism of the DAS policy has at least four dimensions to it: The first is an argument about the inherent difficulties in uniformly implementing DAS as a new technology in a politically, economically, culturally and linguistically diverse country like India. The second strand of criticism comes from those who question the assumption that giving cable companies greater access to television households through DAS will automatically improve the quality of services for the viewers. The third strand of criticism comes from those who argue that the kind of “choice” proposed by the advocates of DAS is a menu-driven format of click-and-choose options that does not fully exploit the interactive potential of digital addressability. The final strand of criticism is that the menu-driven format of choice does not promote the interests of the television viewer at home, but instead serves the commercial interests of the powerful media industries and their elite allies in the government.

Although advocates and critics in the media industries differ in their assessments of the ways in which the new DAS regime is being implemented in India, there seems to be little disagreement in these circles about the potential of new digital technologies to overcome the many problems posed by the old analog mode of delivering broadcasting and cable television services. Therefore, not surprisingly, much of the debate on the shift to DAS television system in India has been framed in technical terms about the relative advantages and disadvantages of digital set-top boxes over the current analog cable technologies. Underlying this consensus about the ills of the analog world is a common view that the attempt to realize the full potential of the broadcasting revolution of the 1970-80s, and the satellite television revolution of the 1990s is being hindered by the inability of television content providers to directly address the audiences at home.

In this essay, I want to move debate on DAS away from the focus on the pros and cons of digital technologies for the delivery of television services where the digital is seen as a technical fix-it-all solution for the problems of the outdated analog system. Instead, I want to pay closer attention to the distinction between addressable and non-addressable systems of communication, and critically analyze the cultural implications of the wholesale shift toward digitally addressable systems in Indian television. I argue that the shift from the current regime of non-addressable analog systems and hybrid analog-digital systems to a uniformly digital addressable system is taking place in the television industry in conjunction with similar transformations in other allied and equally crucial sectors of the Indian economy and culture. This generalized shift toward uniformly digital addressable systems is visible most prominently in the unique identification number system called “Aadhaar” launched by the government of India, and in the “Know Your Customer” (KYC) system promulgated by the Reserve Bank of India for use in the banking industry to prevent financial fraud and other criminal activities.

Aadhaar (meaning support in Hindi) is a 12-digit unique identification number (UID) issued to all residents in India on a voluntary basis by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) The UIDAI agency was established by the government of India in 2009, and began assigning UID numbers in September 2010. The aadhaar numbers are stored in a centralized database and linked to demographic and biometric information such as photographs, ten fingerprints and iris scans of every individual with a UID number. The stated goal of the Aadhaar project is to serve as the single source of verifiable identity for the delivery of various public services by using the UID numbers and the associated database information to uniquely address each individual resident in India. (( uidnumber.org ))



The Know Your Customer (KYC) system is used in the banking industry to individually identify each customer and verify his/her identity by using uniquely identifiable data such as a photograph, residential address, marital status and so on. Introduced in 2002 by the Reserve Bank of India, the KYC system is now used by all banks to ensure that they are fully compliant with the government of India’s regulations aimed at preventing money laundering, terrorism financing and identity theft schemes. (( Know Your Customer (KYC) Guidelines ))

Know Your Customer

Know Your Customer

Similarly, the Digital Addressable System (DAS) is being promoted in the television industry as a way to uniquely identify each subscriber on the cable delivery system. DAS comprises of a set of digital hardware and software tools used in satellite and cable TV industries for the transmission of television channels in encrypted form to their subscribers. All subscribers get set top boxes with authorization to view free, paid or on-demand encrypted channels on the satellite or cable network. Authorization is given and controlled by the Multi System Operator (MSO) who owns the DAS but may work with Local Cable Operators (LCO) in different markets.

While the current interactions and intersections among the television industry’s DAS platform with the aadhaar system and the KYC system are limited, the future potential for integration of these digital addressable systems in India is immense. According to a study released by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in April 2012, Telecommunications companies can save over Rs. 1,000 crore (( 1 crore = 10 million. 1 US dollar = 55 Indian rupees )) every year if they use Aadhaar to verify the identity and address of new subscribers. The report claims that the Telecom industry can save this money by going paperless in back end processes, and by avoiding the fines that the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring (TERM) cell imposes on companies for failing to verify subscriber identity in a proper and timely manner. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/using-aadhaar-as-kyc-norm-can-save-telecos-rs-1000-cr-says-study/471088/ )) Recognizing the potential benefits of such digital integration, DISHTV – the leading provider of DTH services in India – embraced the aadhaar UID and the KYC IDs for uniquely identifying its customers, and rapidly expanding its subscriber base across the country. “Dish TV is proud to align with UIDAI to recognise and support the country’s largest movement to provide unique ID numbers to its residents. Aadhaar will also serve an additional payment option as the UID has a direct connect to the banks and financial institutions,” said Dish TV COO Salil Kapoor in statement released to announce the implementation of the new policy in February 2011. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/dish-tv-alignsaadhaar-to-accept-uid-number-as-id-proof/124598/on ))

The development of new digital technologies to communicate with citizens, consumers and audiences in nationalized systems such as Aadhaar, KYC and DAS respectively, requires a new understanding of the emerging modes of digital address in India today. However, the debate over digital addressable systems cannot be simply reduced to the positive versus negative effects of new technologies at home, or more generally in media culture and industries. Television viewers are ambivalent about the potential threats of DAS to their privacy and may also be vaguely aware of the possibilities of greater surveillance by the media industries in the digital world. But at the same time, television viewers recognize that many everyday conveniences of better programming services, efficiency of delivery mechanisms, and greater security in the television household depend greatly on digital addressable systems. As is evident from the recent attempts of major players in the media industry like DISH TV to integrate the DAS platform with KYC and Aadhaar systems, the rise of digital addressable systems and their ability to uniquely address viewers as consumers and citizens raises new questions about the changing relationships between public and private spaces, privacy and surveillance, and the state and its subjects. These are questions that Indian media scholars need to address by extending our analyses of television more broadly to the changing mode of digital address in systems like DAS, KYC and Aadhaar, as well as to the increasing intersections and the growing interdependence among various digital platforms.

Image Credits:

1) DTH Players
2) Aadhaar
3) Know Your Customer

Please feel free to comment.

La televisión cultural mexicana

por: Florence Toussaint / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

(for English, click here)

Anuncio de un programa del Canal 11

Anuncio de un programa del Canal 11

La política cultural

Las reglas generales de la política se adaptan a las distintas esferas de lo social. En el caso de las televisoras públicas, retomaremos el concepto acuñado por Toby Miller y George Judice sobre política cultural. Dicen estos autores que la cultura se vincula con la política “en dos registros: el estético y el antropológico. En el registro estético, la producción artística surge de individuos creativos y se la juzga según criterios estéticos encuadrados por los intereses y prácticas de la crítica y la historia cultural. (…) El registro antropológico (…) toma la cultura como un indicador de la manera en que vivimos, el sentido del lugar y el de persona que nos vuelven humanos…”[i].

Señalan además cómo lo estético distingue a las personas dentro de una comunidad, mientras que lo antropológico marca las diferencias entre comunidades. Los grupos dentro de una sociedad pueden apreciar de distinta manera lo estético gracias a su capital cultural, de acuerdo con el concepto de Bourdieu, mientras que por ejemplo entre países, la lengua, la religión, las costumbres, la economía y la historia dan identidades distintas a cada uno.

De acuerdo con el país, la política cultural se materializa tanto en las acciones del Estado como en sus instituciones. Estas se convierten en el puente entre lo estético y lo antropológico[ii].

Imágen del Canal 22

Imágen del Canal 22

La política cultural del Estado mexicano, respecto de la televisión, tiene dos vertientes. Por un lado el marco legal, que ha surgido de la toma de ciertas decisiones y de la lucha de fracciones diversas dentro del grupo gobernante. De otra parte en sus instituciones, es decir en los sistemas televisivos que se han ido creando y que conforman actualmente un conglomerado con un perfil definido. Este se va moldeando de acuerdo con las políticas, generalmente sexenales. Pero también con las aportaciones que el público realiza a través de organismos de la sociedad civil, de los críticos, de los académicos y de miembros del Congreso que han participado en el debate acerca de la necesidad de que existan las televisoras públicas.

Televisión cultural

La televisión cultural se refiere a todos los sistemas que, independientemente de los contenidos que difundan, han surgido de un apremio estético, de un objetivo que apunta al uso social de una tecnología que tiene un alcance masivo. Se les denomina de distintas maneras: pública, permisionada[iii], no lucrativa, gubernamental, estatal, sin embargo atienden, para ser consideradas así, al mismo principio.

Con el surgimiento de la televisión como industria en 1950, el Estado mexicano decidió otorgar a la inversión privada, el usufructo de señales definidas por la Constitución de la República como propiedad original de la nación, para que desarrollaran el gran negocio que hoy consiste en la existencia de los consorcios privados Televisa, TvAzteca, Multivisión de alcance nacional e internacional, además de otros pequeños grupos locales.

Anuncio de Primer Plano, un programa del Canal 11

Anuncio de Primer Plano, un programa del Canal 11

Paralelamente se estableció el criterio de reservar para uso público una porción minoritaria del espectro. Esta política se hizo patente hasta la aparición, en 1958, de Canal 11. La emisora fue adscrita al Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN) y así opera hasta la fecha.

La política privatizadora y neoliberal desatada en el sexenio de Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) afectó de manera particularmente dura a los medios públicos. En 1993 Imevisión se disolvió, fueron subastados sus redes 7 y 13 y adquiridas por Salinas Pliego con lo cual aparece en el espectro TvAzteca.

Otro intento cultural, aun vigente, es Canal 22. Nació al mismo tiempo que se vendía Imevisión. Fue rescatado del paquete de medios ofrecidos a la iniciativa privada. Con todas las vicisitudes de los canales gubernamentales, ha vivido ya casi tres sexenios.

Anuncio para la nueva temporada en Canal 22

Anuncio para la nueva temporada en Canal 22

En los años 80 y 90, la mayoría de los Estados de la República, obtuvieron permiso o concesión para operar señales televisivas abiertas. Su desarrollo se encuentra vinculado con el gobierno estatal en turno, lo que ha resultado en políticas contradictorias y cambiantes; en programación que fluctúa entre la calidad y el oficialismo. Sin embargo constituyen un espacio que ha sido preservado para la cultura.

Existen 22 permisos para los Gobiernos de los Estados, 3 para las universidades, 1 para el IPN. Canal 22 es una concesión.[iv] Un total de 27 televisoras aéreas abiertas de perfil cultural. Hay que agregar además, las repetidoras.

A partir del año 2000 se abrió una posibilidad inédita en el país: contar con señales televisivas culturales que solamente circulan por medios de paga como el cable y el satélite: El Canal del Congreso, el Canal Judicial, AprendeTV y TVUNAM, el canal de los universitarios. Es decir que en la etapa que va de 1985 a la fecha, la pantalla se ha diversificado.

Y está en emergencia un fenómeno nuevo: la internacionalización de las televisoras culturales. Varios canales mexicanos han traspasado las fronteras y ahora pueden verse en algunos Estados de la Unión Americana.

Para concluir

La política cultural respecto de la televisión puede resumirse diciendo que el modelo elegido es el mixto. Pantalla chica privada y pública. Sin embargo ésta última ha transitado por diversas orientaciones, lo cual no le ha permitido madurar ni insertarse de manera definitiva en el gusto del público. Los vaivenes de la política, manifestados en la creación de sistemas televisivos para luego venderlos, en el apoyo de canales para luego recortarles el presupuesto, en el apoyo de productoras para mantener enlatadas sus series porque no hay canales de distribución, han mantenido a las televisoras culturales en un permanente desasosiego.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004, p. 11.
Op.cit. p.11.
En la legislación mexicana existen dos figuras para designar y otorgar frecuencias de radio y televisión: el permiso y la concesión. En el primer caso no se puede vender espacio. En el segundo sí.
Véase la nota 3.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004.

Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinción, Taurus, México, 1998.

Richeri, Giuseppe, La transición de la televisión, Bosch, Barcelona, 1994.

Toussaint, Florence (Coord). ¿Televisión pública en México?, CONACULTA, México, 1993.

Toussaint, Florence. Actualidad de las televisoras culturales, texto 11, Filmoteca UNAM, México, marzo de 2001.

—. “La oferta televisiva abierta en la ciudad de México (2003)” en Lenin Martell (coordinador). Hacia la construcción de una ciencia de la comunicación en México, AMIC, México, 2004.

Imágen cortesía de autor.

Florence Toussaint es profesora en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Favor de comentar.

by: Florence Toussaint / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Cultural Policy

General policy regulations are adaptable to distinct social spheres. In the case of public television, we find useful Toby Miller and George Judice’s concept of cultural policy. These authors state that culture links to policy in two registers: the aesthetic and the anthropological. In the aesthetic register, artistic production arises from creative individuals and is judged according to aesthetic criteria delimited by critical and cultural interests and historical practices. The anthropoligical register understands culture as indicative of how we live our lives, our sense of place and self that make us human.[i]

They also point out how the aesthetic register is used to distinguish between people within a community, while the anthropological marks differences between communities. Groups within a society may have differing aesthetic tastes, dinstinguishable by their cultural capital as in Bourdieu’s model, while between countries, for example, language, religión, traditions, economics, and history foster distinct identities in each.

Accordingly, in each country, cultural policies are evident equally in actions at the State level as at the level of its institutions. These actions mark the bridge between the aesthetic and the anthropological registers[ii].

With respect to television, Mexico’s cultural policy has two facets. On one side, legal frameworks have arisen based on various rulings and out of diverse government factions. On the other side, institutions, which constitute the television system, have been created which operate as a conglomerate with its own agenda. The latter structure changes in accordance with political changes, roughly every six years [when major election cycles in Mexico take place]. But it also changes through actions taken by the public through special interest groups, critics, academics, and Congress persons who have participated in debates about the need for public television outlets.

Cultural Television

Cultural television refers to systems that, independently of the content they air, have arisen out of urgent need, with an objective of putting to social use a technology with the ability to reach so many. It has been labeled alternately “public,” “state-licensed,”[iii] “non-profit,” “goverment,” “state,” while all the while, at the core, reflecting the same goal.

As the television industry grew rapidly in 1950, the Mexican State ceded to private investment the use and profit of the signals defined as the rightful property of the nation by the Constitution of the Republic. This resulted in the grand business scheme that exists today as the private consortiums of Televisa, TvAzteca, and Multivisión, with national and international interests, as well as other smaller, regional, groups.

At the same time, a small part of the spectrum was reserved for public use. This policy was realized most obviously through the creation of Canal 11 [Channel 11] in 1958. The station was attached to the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) and continues to operate from there to this day.

The neoliberal policies of privitization unleashed during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) were especially troubling for public media outlets. In 1993, Imevisión was dissolved and its networks 7 and 13 were auctioned to Salinas Pliego with which it now appears on the TvAzteca spectrum.

Another long-standing effort towards cultural television, is Canal 22 [Channel 22]. It was created at the same time as Imevisión’s sale. It was rescued from among the others which were offered to the privatization initiative. Canal 22 has managed to survive the ups and downs of almost three governmental changeovers.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of Mexican States were able to obtain licenses (public or private) to operate open broadcasting television signals. Their development has been intricately linked with the state governments, which has resulted in contradictory and inconsistent policies; their programming has alternated between quality and state propaganda. Nonetheless, they do provide a space which is reserved for culture.

There are currently 22 permits for state goverments, 3 for universities, and 1 for IPN. Canal 22 operates under a private license.[iv] This means that there exist a total of 27 cultural television signals. In addition, we must also recognize the existence of an associated network of TV relays.
Since the year 2000, another possibility has arisen that has not yet been fully accounted for: the transmission of cultural television signals which circulate entirely through subscription services like cable and satellite. Goverment stations such as El Canal del Congreso and el Canal Judicial, AprendeTV, and the university channel TVUNAM. We should recognize that since 1985 the screen has been diversifying.

Yet another phenomenon is on the rise: the internationalization of cultural television. Many Mexican channels challenge international borders and may be watched from within the United States of America.


With respect to television, cultural policy often ends up supporting a mixed model. The small screen as private and public. Nevertheless, the latter has existed in so many incarnations it has not been permitted to mature nor has it managed to definitively cultivate a loyal audience. Inconsistent policies, evident in the process of creating television networks just to sell them, in funding channels just to yank away their budgets, in supporting producers just to shelve their work “in the can” because there are no distribution outlets, have left cultural television in a permanent state of anxiety.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004, p. 11.
Ibid, p. 11.
The term here is “permisionada,” which in Mexico refers to a station that is state-owned but is licensed for non-commercial use.
The term used here is “una concesión.” “Concesionada” is contrasted to “permisionada” in that the former is a privately-owned license. Additionally the former license permits the sale of ad time, while the latter does not.

Click here to see the author’s Bibliography

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
Images provided by author.

Author: Florence Toussaint is a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Translator: Jean Anne Lauer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and a Senior Editor of Flow.

La telenovela mexicana en el ciberespacio

por: Claudia Benassini Félix / Tecnológico de Monterrey, State of Mexico

(for English, click here)

Los actores de Senda Prohibida

Los actores de “Senda Prohibida”

La telenovela mexicana es uno de los productos más exitosos de la televisión nacional. Desde 1958, año en que se inician las transmisiones de Senda Prohibida, el género fue posicionándose entre las audiencias nacionales. De aquí su inclusión gradual en la programación que desde sus comienzos ofrece la Spanish Internacional Network a partir de 1962, y que catorce años más adelante se convertiría en la Cadena Univisión. Y de ahí su inclusión en la oferta programática que Televisa — entonces Telesistema Mexicano — exportó a otros países vía Protele, empresa fundada por Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta para vender las producciones mexicanas a las televisoras extranjeras. En consecuencia, de manera gradual el género fue conquistando a las audiencias más allá de las fronteras nacionales.

Por tanto, tampoco fue casual que en 1988, cuando Televisa incursionó nuevamente en el mercado europeo a través de España y el sistema Galavisión[i], la telenovela fue incluida como parte de la programación. Y fue a través de Quinceañera, la telenovela mexicana entonces más popular en nuestro país, que las audiencias europeas, comenzando por las españolas, comenzaron a relacionarse con el género. De manera casi paralela, los logros continuaron en otros países, sobre todo los ubicados en la zona oriental del continente[ii]. De hecho, estos logros ocuparon espacios importantes en los espacios destinados al espectáculo en la prensa, radio y televisión nacionales e internacionales.

Victoria Ruffo de La Madrastra

Victoria Ruffo de “La Madrastra”

En este proceso, las producciones mexicanas han enfrentado a la competencia de otros países. Primero, Venezuela y Brasil; más adelante Colombia y Argentina; más recientemente, otros países que han incorporado el género a su oferta programática, en buena medida por la aceptación que ha tenido entre las audiencias, como España. Adicionalmente, si bien en sus inicios la telenovela mexicana fue producida por Televisa, en este momento se enfrenta a la competencia de Televisión Azteca, empresa que desde 1996 ingresó al género con producciones como Mirada de mujer, con las que ha buscado incursionar en el mercado internacional[iii]. Asimismo, en el contexto de la producción nacional y de la competencia entre países, es importante considerar que la telenovela mexicana ha pasado por altibajos, identificables por los estudiosos del género, la crítica especializada y las propias audiencias[iv].

Este panorama descrito apretadamente da cuenta de los espacios conquistados por la telenovela mexicana y del crecimiento de sus audiencias, cuantitativa y cualitativamente hablando. Es difícil hacer un estimado real del número de televidentes que cotidianamente se exponen al género; sin embargo, los estudios realizados por investigadores del tema dan cuenta de los procesos a través de los cuales las audiencias televisivas — y por tanto de la telenovela — se apropian de los contenidos del medio y los incorporan a sus prácticas cotidianas. Como muestra, basta ver el crecimiento de los espacios en Internet dedicados el tema, la mayoría diseñados y actualizados por sus aficionados[v]. El movimiento se inició en 1976, cuando la venezolana Jolette Nicholson, apoyada por el ruso Alexander Zhukov, lanzó al ciberespacio su página “Telenovelas-Internet”, en el que reconocía su afición por la telenovela mexicana[vi] y su interés por intercambiar materiales y opiniones con otros ciberaficionados.

Los actores de Rebelde

Los actores de “Rebelde”

Rápidamente el ejemplo de Jolette tuvo sus seguidores, como el mexicano Juan Carlos Alvarado y la chilena María Elena Venant, el español “Moisés”, el portorriqueño Rafael Ochoteco y muchos más ciberaficionados a la telenovela mexicana, ubicados en diversas partes del mundo[vii]. Más recientemente, las opciones abiertas por la blogósfera han incrementado los espacios[viii]. Asimismo, las consideradas “escenas importantes” del género –finales, entradas, temas musicales etc.- han comenzado a subirse a YouTube y pueden observarse y comentarse por los interesados.

Cabe señalar que cada vez resulta más complicado encontrar espacios dedicados específicamente a la telenovela mexicana, puesto que la internacionalización del género ha propiciado que los ciberaficionados se vuelquen en sus preferencias, más allá de sus orígenes. Aproximarse a la indagación, la exploración y la investigación de este espacio constituye una opción que da cuenta de una nueva modalidad de apropiación del género que da cuenta del interés de sus aficionados, mismo que se traduce en procesos tan diversos que van desde la construcción de espacios propios hasta el debate y la polémica sobre el tema. Adicionalmente, adentrarse en este ámbito supone utilizar metodologías tan variadas como la etnografía, el análisis conversacional y la etnometodología entre otras. Un campo, en suma, sobre el que todavía queda mucho por investigar.

Una primera incursión fue en 1975, básicamente a través de programas informativos. Sin embargo, en ese momento la aceptación de la programación mexicana en España fue mínima. En consecuencia, las oficinas de Televisa España se mantuvieron más bien como una suerte de corresponsalía informativa. La segunda incursión, en 1988 — a la que hacemos referencia–, se produjo en el contextoy del de la era de los satélites y de la televisión de paga.
Este proceso se inició a finales de 1989, en el contexto de la apertura regional iniciada por la entonces Unión Soviética durante el régimen de Mijail Gorbachov.
Sin embargo, revisiones periódicas a la programación de diversas televisoras latinoamericanas y europeas da cuenta de que las telenovelas de Televisa tienen más aceptación que las de TV Azteca.
En este momento, la crítica central es la poca presencia de argumentos originales. Si bien la telenovela mexicana continúa posicionada como uno de los géneros favoritos entre las audiencias nacionales e internacionales, se reconoce que sus argumentos son remakes de producciones locales exitosas, como Vivir un poco (1985), que veinte años después se convirtió en La Madrastra, o Rubí (1964), cuya nueva versión llegó a la pantalla casera cuatro décadas más tarde. Asimismo, Mirada de mujer fue primera una exitosa telenovela en Colombia, igual que Rebelde lo fue en Argentina.
Nos referimos específicamente a los espacios de aficionados que circulan a través de la red y no a las páginas institucionales diseñadas y mantenidas por las televisoras. También nos referimos en particular a los espacios destinados a discutir la telenovela mexicana.
Desde hace casi siete años, Jolette trabaja para Univisión y su sitio pionero Telenovelas-Internet.com fue absorbido por la televisora.
Por ejemplo, los sitios Telenovelas del Momento, Telenovelas online, en los que se da cuenta de otros muchos espacios dedicados al género.
Por ejemplo, La Coctelera/Rebelde, Las Telenovelas Mexicanas en EUA, entre muchas opciones.

“Comunidades virtuales: ¿espacios de convivencia pacífica?”, en Dia-logos de la Comunicación núm. 59-60, FELAFACS, Lima.

“Formación de comunidades virtuales a través de la televisión” en ISLAS, Octavio y Fernando GUTIERREZ (coord.) Internet: el medio inteligente, 2000, Edit. CECSA.

“El papel de la telenovela latinoamericana en la formación de comunidades virtuales: propuestas para su abordaje”, en Signo y Pensamiento núm. 36, 2000, Facultad de Comunicación y Lenguaje, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Santa Fe de Bogotá.

1. Los actores de “Senda Prohibida”
2. Victoria Ruffo de “La Madrastra”
3. Los actores de “Rebelde”

Claudia Benassini Félix es investigadora asociada, Cátedra de Investigación en Comunicación Estratégica y Cibercultura, ITESM Campus Estado de México.

Favor de comentar.

by: Claudia Benassini Félix / Tecnológico de Monterrey, State of Mexico

Telenovelas represent one of the most successful products to emerge from Mexico’s television industry. The genre positioned itself as an important alternative for audiences since 1958, when Senda Prohibida [Forbidden Path] was broadcasted. Thus, it was gradually incorporated into the programming offered by Spanish International Network from 1962 onwards; fourteen years later this entity would become Cadena Univisión. Therefore, it was included among the various programs exported by Televisa, then known as Telesistema Mexicano. The corporation exported the genre through Protele, a company created by Emilio Azcárraga to sell Mexican productions to foreign networks and television stations. Consequently, this genre slowly conquered foreign audiences.

Thus, it is not surprising that in 1988, when Televisa once again ventured into the European market through Spain and the Galavision system,[i] telenovelas were part of the overall programming. European audiences (particularly those from Spain) first began relating to this genre through Quinceañera [Fifteen-year old girl]. At the same time, Televisa achieved success in other countries, particularly those located in the Eastern part of the continent.[ii]

Throughout this process, Mexican productions have faced competition from other countries. First, Venezuela and Brazil; later on, Colombia and Argentina. More recently, other countries have incorporated the genre in their programming, mostly because of the positive response from audiences; Spanish television production exemplifies this model. Additionally, even though Mexican telenovelas were initially produced by Televisa, this corporation now faces competition from Televisión Azteca. The latter entered the playing field through productions such as Mirada de Mujer [A Woman’s Gaze]; it later entered the international market with the same product.[iii] Moreover, one must note that Mexican telenovelas have gone through various setbacks, identified by various scholars devoted to the genre, specialized critics, and audiences themselves.[iv]

This cursory overview describes the spaces conquered by Mexican telenovelas, even as it details the growth of audiences in a quantitative and qualitative fashion. It is difficult to determine the real number of television viewers that are regularly exposed to this genre. Nevertheless, researchers have noted how television audiences — and hence, telenovela viewers — appropriate the contents of the medium and incorporate them in their everyday practices. One can note the various internet sites devoted to the genre, most of them designed and updated by fans.[v] This process began in 1976, when Jolette Nicholson launched her cyberspace site, “Telenovelas-Internet” with the help of Alexander Zhukov from Russia. Through this site, she noted her devotion to Mexican telenovelas, and her wish to exchange materials and opinions with other cyberfans.[vi]

Jolette’s example was quickly followed by people such as Juan Carlos Alvarado (Mexico) and María Elenba Venant (Chile), “Moisés” (Spain), and Rafael Ochoteco (Puerto Rico); various other Mexican telenovela cyberfans also participated in this process.[vii] More recently, the options made available by the blogosphere have multiplied these sites.[viii] Moreover, the “most important scenes” from the genre — opening credits, endings, musical themes, and more — are being uploaded into YouTube, so that all those who are interested can watch them.

One must note that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sites specifically devoted to Mexican telenovelas, as the internationalization of the genre has altered the tastes and preferences of cyberfans, regardless of their country of origin. As one investigates, explores, and researches this space, one must note a new genre appropriation modality, one that speaks of the interest from fans, which in turn produces a diverse gamut of processes from these individuals. These processes veer from the construction of their own sites to a number of spirited debates and controversies around the telenovela genre. Additionally, in order to enter this body of knowledge, one must engage in various methodologies, such as ethnography, conversation analysis, and ethnomethodology, among others. In other words, much remains to be done within this field.

One early example took place in 1975 with news programming. At that moment, however, there was a limited acceptance of Mexican programming in Spain. Consequently, the Televisa España offices were mostly kept as news correspondents. The second attempt, taking place in 1988, was produced within the context and era of satellite and pay-per-view television.
This process began towards the end of 1989, as part of the historical and social processes developing throughout the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nevertheless, a periodic overview of programming in Latin American and European networks reveals that telenovelas by Televisa are still more popular than those produced by TV Azteca.
At this moment, a common complaint is the lack of original plots. Even though most people recognize that Mexican telenovelas are popular with national and international audiences, one must recognize that the plots are mostly remakes of successful local productions. For example, Vivir un poco [To Live a Little], from 1985, was later remade as La Madrasta [The Step-Mother]. Other productions include a 1964 telenovela, Rubí, which four decades later was “remade.” Similarly, Mirada de Mujer was first a successful Colombian telenovela, as well as Rebelde [Rebel].
I am specifically referring to the sites built and maintained by fans, not to the various websites designed and maintained by television networks. I am also referring specifically to those sites devoted to discuss Mexican telenovelas.
For over seven years, Jolette has been working for Univisión. Her pioneering website, Telenovelas-Internet.com was absorbed by the television network.
For instance, sites such as Telenovelas del Momento, Telenovelas online, which list various other websites devoted to the genre.
For instance, La Coctelera/Rebelde, Las Telenovelas Mexicanas en EUA, among various other options.

Click here to see the author’s publications in this area

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. The Cast of Senda Prohibida
2. Victoria Ruffo from La Madrastra
3. The Cast of Rebelde

Author: Claudia Benassini Félix is Associate Researcher, Tec de Monterrey, Campus State of Mexico.

Translator: Alberto McKelligan Hernandez is a Ph.D. Student in Art History at the City University of New York (CUNY).

When the Whole World is Watching: The Case of Celebrity Big Brother

by: Sarita Malik / Brunel University

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

Shanti Kumar provided us with a considered and thorough outline of the 2007 UK Celebrity Big Brother saga in a recent flow column. As Shanti charted, a lot has been made about the series in relation to its racialised dynamics and about what it tells us with regards to the state of local/global race, gender and class relations. Less, it seems, has been said about the relationship between the content and the broadcaster (Channel 4), although this might present a useful case study for broader discussions around the media and the state. Now that we can begin to look back at the series in less impulsive, more diagnostic ways, the major upshot – aside from a surefire boost to Shilpa Shetty’s international career following her win – should be the critical attention paid to Channel 4’s role.

Channel 4

Channel 4

CBB is on course to draw more complaints (currently over 45,000) than any other programme in British television history and has led to enquiries around the alleged racism and editorial and compliance processes that support the programme, raising some big questions – and not least because Channel 4 executives are currently lobbying for government money. Channel 4 was launched 25 years ago with an original remit for ethnic minority representation. As the only channel set up with a dedicated multicultural programmes department and commissioning editor, a unique conception of public service broadcasting was promised.

When that specialist department was shut down in 2002, Channel 4 declared that the real future of ethnic minority representation was in mainstream programming. At the time it could hardly have anticipated a more bizarre validation of ‘mainstreaming multiculturalism’ than the recent ‘race row’. Minority representation, yes. Mainstream, yes. But the international spotlight and copious complaints to their regulator about alleged racist bullying could hardly have been part of that vision.

And yet one doubts that many of those who took offence at CBB did so primarily because they felt betrayed by what has traditionally been perceived as the most ‘minority-friendly’ terrestrial channel. If so, why did they not protest as loudly when targeted multicultural spaces were axed? Or did they believe that the ‘new multiculturalism’ and plan to ‘go mainstream’, as Channel 4 executives spun it, was based on cultural intelligence rather than commercial pressure?

What about Channel 4’s continuing strategic pledge to cultural and other diversity (‘it lies at the heart of our remit’), which the rest of Europe and the world have long recognised as a perfect model of diversity-aware media? Perhaps the introduction to Channel 4’s Statement of Promises sheds some light: ‘The Channel needs commercial success in order to fund projects of ambition and risk and to support the range and diversity of its suppliers.’ If the handling of CBB was a means to an end, then what does this tell us about the broadcaster and indeed about the public service framework through which it is tasked to operate?

The viewing figures for CBB plummeted to below 3 million in the first week and gradually rose in tandem with the media focus and complaints, peaking at 8.8 million on the evening of the carefully stage-managed eviction of Jade Goody. The Big Brother brand is Channel 4’s largest money-earner, and accounts for approximately 10 per cent of its revenue. So did Channel 4 prioritise commercial success over its diversity mantra? Did it maximise profits by maximising conflict? Was it, as Tessa Jowell (Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) suggested, ‘racism being presented as entertainment’, and if so, at what cost?

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

More fundamentally, can a broadcaster that claims to champion diversity afford to take such a sluggish response to criticisms of racism, and manage any potential fallout so clumsily? How could it be that viewers were rapidly taking offence several days before the climactic ‘stock-cube showdown’, yet Channel 4 stayed quiet? (Stranger still because Channel 4 was already in some trouble with the UK media super-regulator, Ofcom, for not intervening during a ‘distressing’ incident in 2004’s Big Brother.)

Or was there, in fact, an intention by Channel 4 to expose the real face of prejudice in our midst, as Channel 4 Chief Executive, Andy Duncan, suggested when he said it was a “good thing that the programme has raised these issues”? But would any other institution (the police-force or a university perhaps) sustain a target-busting employee if they had also demonstrated bullying tendencies? Should racism or bullying – or indeed racist bullying – be buttressed or left uninterrupted on TV any more than it should elsewhere in society? Isn’t this precisely when a broadcaster should be editorially transparent? Such ambiguities sit oddly alongside the organisation’s politicised cultural diversity, and indeed public service, remit.

The so-called codes and conventions of the reality TV genre only muddle things further. At what point does the programme-maker, in a format with such broad ‘truth’ claims, step in and be seen to deliberately take control? And, as a consequence, undermine any ‘mirror on society’ hypothesis that broadcasters so frequently and expediently bandy about? These issues touch on a very important aspect when considering the relationship between media and state: which is about the nature of trust between the audience and broadcaster?

Channel 4’s apparent non-intervention as the gang bullying intensified was defended with an alibi of genre-etiquette; that is, the producers could not be seen to ‘intrude’ and spoil the natural order of things in the house. Of course, the real codes of reality TV demand that it is never left uninterrupted by the manoeuvring of those in the business of programme-making (who devise tasks, edit strategically, interview provocatively, and so on) in order to generate interest.

Big Brother Brazil

Big Brother Brazil

As reality TV expands and reality formats go global, other broadcasters – in spite of different media models and political traditions – may well face similar issues. How differently would an Indian broadcaster, for example, react if a similar situation arose in Big Boss (the Indian version of the original Dutch Big Brother, launched by Endemol)? The real ‘culture clash’ in this story is how cultural differences are negotiated and represented in the very public arena of ‘world television’. In spite of the recent spread of global formats (Big Brother, The Kumars at No. 42, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and X Factor have all been launched and aggressively marketed abroad), deep differences among world audiences exist.

Digitalisation, the internet and interactive media, as well as broadening our viewing options, are making it easier to complain, mobilise discontent and vocalise opinion internationally. For better or worse, there is real pressure for broadcasters (and indeed artists, filmmakers and other cultural practitioners) to consider not just local but global sensitivities. Channel 4, already using CBB to validate its position as the channel that pushes boundaries, will need to negotiate some of these concerns if it wants to maintain its claims of integrity, and perhaps more importantly, if it wants the world to keep watching.

— Sarita Malik writes on race and culture and is the author of Representing Black Britain.

Image Credits:
1. Shilpa Shetty
2. Channel 4
3. Jade Goody
4. Big Brother Brazil

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.

To Have and Have not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me
George: Well, I want my life back!
Betty: It’s not like you were doing anything with it.

Mondays, 7.30pm: everyone in Australia knows that’s the time for Desperate Housewives. At my house we’ve been trying to give ourselves to this hot new series, and it certainly does have bright sets, a polished ensemble cast who show the right balance of allure and repellence, the promise of secrets to be revealed, cruelties lurking beneath. And a dead leading character.

But it’s slow, and that polished look sometimes just says “look at the money on the screen,” which flatters the production system, not the viewer. In fact Desperate Housewives feels more like another episode in the long slow death-wish of American TV.

So while my partner is out of the room, and the three girls are watching it on the other telly upstairs, I find my attention drifting and hit the “booper” (the remote). In Australia Desperate Housewives is on free-to-air Channel Seven, currently resurgent in its ratings battle with arch rival Nine, not least because of this very show, together with some other high-profile buys from the US like Lost and 24.

Unlike the majority of Australians we subscribe to Foxtel (cable TV). The channel that sits between Seven and Nine is Fox8. Fox8 has its moments — early America’s Next Top Model being one of them. So it didn’t take much commitment to “boop” from Seven to Eight, but that’s as far as I got.

What is this? That delicious TV rarity, something that you can’t “place” in a millisecond. Coming to it cold, Dead Like Me did not make a bit of sense, to such an extent that we decided — partner was back now and not missing the Desperates — that it must be Canadian. So we watched it, just long enough we thought to figure it out before going back to our Housewives duty. But we never made it back.

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

Our family (two parents, three teenage girls) generally doesn’t eat or watch TV together. But Dead Like Me achieved that minor miracle. Week by week, the girls drifted in while it was on, and we ended up in a row like the Simpsons on the big yellow sofa, sometimes — it being what passes for winter in Australia — all snuggled under the one doona (quilt). We began to look forward to Mondays. So now, here’s another rarity; family communion, celebrated at the altar of “George” (Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth) — a teenager who’s dead, killed unglamorously by a toilet seat crashing to earth from Russian space-junk Mir. How useless was that, seems to be the story of her life, now that it’s over.

We all agree that Ellen Muth is “drop dead gorgeous.” But it isn’t just that. Her expressive face catches perfectly the bemusement and frustration of her character’s situation. Then there’s the deadpan humour, the fact that she says “fuck” a lot, and the inexplicable scenario and plotlines. We like her blue coat too.

It took a while to learn the internal logic of the series — how being dead worked, especially as the five main characters (all dead) interact at will with the living, even to the extent of Our Heroine losing her virginity to one of them. We had to understand George’s two workplaces: the diner where she picks up her post-it assignments from taciturn boss-reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and the Happy Times temp agency, presided over by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), who suffers from terminal perkiness.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast of really strange characters, each of whom requires attention before you “get” them. At first all this seems united by little more than Ellen Muth’s really terrific voice — her character is narrator as well; somewhere between dead Desperate Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), and Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart), who once “explained it all.” The timbre is a gravelly contralto, somewhere between teenage “fuck-you” and Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

Over the weeks Dead Like Me slowly resolved into sense, revealing itself not to be Canadian at all, even though it was shot in British Columbia. Part of the attraction is that it is not like American TV as we’ve come to expect/dread it, even though it’s playing around with a very familiar genre (teen-angst sitcom) in a very familiar bit of the zeitgeist — have you noticed how many dead people there are on TV these days?

Its textual pleasures are to do with freshness and unexpectedness within a format that audiences want to see disrupted a little; “jaded” humour (as my daughter puts it); script-led drama; taking the piss out of sacred cows (death, mothers, spirituality). It has insights into both family and work situations (sitcoms usually choose between these). Georgia’s mother is far from being a sympathetic character (teen sitcoms usually delete/idealise these). Creator Bryan Fuller knows his craft but is also audacious.

There’s quite a bit to say about it, but it is well covered in the review, fan and feedback sites, so why not browse them directly:

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site

Anyway we like it and we’re currently watching it through to the end of the second series, which has been playing on Foxtel in Australia (and also on Sky in the UK) over the past few months. For us it’s new.

But in fact, Dead Like Me is already dead. It was made in 2003 and 2004; two series on Showtime and then cancelled. In the American market, almost the most interesting thing about it was that it was not on HBO, nor was it Six Feet Under.

Which raises another issue; the question of life after death not for characters but for TV shows, for TV itself. Once upon a time you watched broadcast shows when they were on in your country and then they died. But that’s no longer the case. There are ways to keep in touch with them, dead or alive.

First, we had to go through our “toilet seat moment” — the one where we discovered that this show we’d just fallen for was already dead in the USA. The experience of watching it changed right away — knowing that there was a finite number of episodes meant that the characters could only develop so far. Now there was no chance that Dead Like Me would be recognized for what it is and enjoy a shift to free-to-air prominence, ratings glory and umpteen seasons. It would never become Desperate.

On the other hand, it did enjoy plenty of post-broadcast action. The web yielded many interesting sites on which one can follow its afterlife, as well as those of its creators, cast, consumers and competition. We soon learnt that creator Bryan Fuller went on to do Wonderfalls. That was cancelled after only four episodes, despite 13 having been made. It went on to posthumous glory on DVD and global pay-TV channels.

Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

Not surprisingly, both seasons of Dead Like Me have also been released on DVD. Lots of folk think as highly of it as we do. You can read their comments on many sites, from Amazon to IMDb, and you can even sign a petition to MGM (who own it) to get it back. Last time I checked there were 47863 signatures.

SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

Following this show has been like modeling what it means to “watch TV” these days. It is not an of-the-moment experience in real time, not live, not even broadcast. You have to “sit up” not “sit back” — enjoyment becomes less snuggling under the doona, more like working on the computer. It just goes to show how far TV has evolved from the broadcast era.

But some things have not changed, among them American corporations. We tried to order the DVDs, feeling mildly pleased that they cost only US$75 (down from $99) for both seasons. But we found they’re encoded for DVD Region 1, and we live in Region 4 so there’s no point ordering them. Then we tried to get them locally, but the suppliers don’t yet stock this DVD. Just to rub it in, when we went to the Showtime website to find out more stuff about the show, we were greeted with this message: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. You have requested data that the server has decided not to provide to you. Your request was understood and denied.” No wonder all the posts on the US websites are so rude about Showtime.

So — perforce — just until the final season ends, we can still enjoy sitting back and watching the show like a real TV family watching a real Brady sitcom. It won’t last. The DVDs will arrive, something else will come on Fox8, and everyone will drift away. It’ll be the end of TV as we knew it. You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

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.

Image Credits:
1. Global Media

TV Globo
Television from around the world

Please feel free to comment.

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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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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