What The World's
Poor Watch On TV
By Bella Thomas
Is television an outpost
of cultural imperialism? More than two billion people in poor countries now have
access to a set. But, rather than envying the West, they are increasingly tuning
in to local programs.
In 1999, an extremist
group in Karachi launched a campaign against un-Islamic practices in Pakistan,
where satellite television is popular. The most arresting stunt was the burning
of a pile of television sets. The group, Tehrik-e-Insdad Munkirat, declared: "the
gadgets are satanic devices which corrupt people and society." It is not alone
in thinking this.
Today America is threatened
by a hatred that is inflamed by its seduction of television audiences across the
world. Or so it is often said. "They hate us because they see endless pictures
of our rich, sleazy, easy lives in the soap operas shown around the world"-this
was a stock-in-trade of commentators, such as Thomas Friedman, trying to understand
the roots of 11th September. In the poorest parts of the world, such images are
said to have a particularly malign influence.
The ubiquity of images
of American life-with its violence and sexual license-is supposed to explain both
the revulsion against America and the growing Americanization of the globe. This
may seem paradoxical but it is possible to have a range of responses to the same
deluge of images-ranging from hatred to envy to a passionate desire to emulate.
This report will delve
into those assumptions. It will ask how many of the world's poor actually have
access to a television. It will then look at how much Western programming is seen
in the developing world and what evidence there is about how it influences people.
These questions are surprisingly
difficult to answer. There are few reliable statistics relating to television
viewing in Asia and Africa. And there is far more research on the programming
strategy of broadcasters in developing countries than on what is actually watched,
or, more elusively, on the impact it has. There is a tendency to assume that the
poor--unlike the savvy rich-imbibe what they see wholesale. But the effect in
say, rural Algeria, of a program like Dallas is not to create a new cadre of full-blown
capitalists bowling through the hammams. Algerians from remote villages
are capable of seeing the Texan drama through nostalgic eyes, as representative
of a close-knit family and a patriarchal world which they are losing. The way
people respond to the same programs is diverse and surprising; we all bring our
own experience to bear on what we see.
HOW MANY POOR PEOPLE
BIGGEST TV MARKETS 1997 (million homes)
| India: 79
FILMS ON RUSSIAN TV, 1999
of National Fishing (Russia)
Woman (United States)
|3. Ivan Vasilievich
is Changing Job (Russia)
|4. Hard Target
|5. On Deadly
Ground (United States)
|8. Most Charming
and attractive (Russia)
|9. The Man
in the Iron Mask (United States-England)
In 1980s Cairo, a popular
joke used to go around about peasants from Upper Egypt, called Sa'idis and stereotyped
as backward. A Sa'idi goes into an appliance store and asks, "How much is that
television set in the window?" The owner yells, "Get out of here you stupid Sa'idi."
He comes back dressed as a Saudi Arabian. The owner yells the same thing-and again,
when he comes back disguised as a European. Puzzled, the man asks, "How could
you tell it was me?" The shop owner answers, "That's not a television, it's a
Since the 1980s, access
to, or ownership of, a television set has grown rapidly throughout Asia and the
Arab world-few Egyptian peasants would mistake a washing machine for a television
in 2002. In the villages of Upper Egypt where the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod
conducted a study in the mid-1990s, she found most households had a television
set. "Many were simple black-and-white sets with poor reception balanced precariously
on rickety shelves in corners of mudbrick rooms. The wealthiest families in the
village had large color sets in rooms that boasted religious calligraphy and padded
sofas. But on every poor family's wish list, were they to save enough for a down
payment, was a color set."
While there are still
hundreds of millions of people-particularly in Africa-who have never seen a set,
television viewing is growing in relation to other technologies. There are, for
example, more rural Chinese who have access to cable television than to telephones.
One reason it is difficult
to establish the precise number of people with access to a set in the poor world-as
James Murdoch, chief executive of Star TV Group and son of Rupert, told a cable
conference in India-is that individual cable subscribers sometimes pass on the
service illegally to an entire neighborhood. Moreover, in parts of the developing
world, large numbers of people often crowd into one house or cafe to watch television,
a factor that is hard to quantify. But from available figures it seems that the
number of sets in the world has tripled since 1980, from 550 million to 1.4 billion
in 1996, with Asia showing the highest growth from 100m to 650m.
Daya Thussu, in Electronic
Empires, estimated that 2.5 billion people have regular access to a television
in the south (the developing world)-meaning about half the people that live there-which
explains why the Western-based media empires have turned their attention to it.
China, with a population of 1.3 billion and one of the world's fastest growing
economies, is clearly a prize market for such corporations. By 1999, China had
an estimated 350 million sets-meaning almost all households had access to television
in one way or another-and the television audience has increased from just 18 million
in 1975 to 540 million in 1985, and to 1 billion in 1995. Television stations
have also grown substantially, from 30 in 1978 to 980 in 1995. Chinese state television
CCTV claims to reach 84 per cent of the population, with the number of regular
viewers exceeding 900 million.
According to Arthur Andersen,
which conducted a study for Star TV, television reaches only about half of the
population of India; 78.9 per cent of the urban population and 39.8 per cent of
the rural population. In total, that is some 80 million television households
in India (and probably many more), of which half can get cable or satellite. Satellite,
once considered the preserve of urban consumers, is now targeting the better-off
in India's villages, especially those in the southern states. In Tamil Nadu, for
instance, nearly 32 per cent of rural television viewers tune in to satellite
In sub-Saharan Africa,
the picture is very different. Only 2.5 per cent of the world's televisions are
in Africa. Irregular or non-existent electricity supplies are a common feature
of the sub-Saharan landscape, which is an obvious barrier to the growth of television.
Many countries have extremely limited power distribution networks which do not
penetrate significantly into rural areas. Only 3.5 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans
own a television and a few countries, such as Tanzania, do not have their own
state television service.
WHAT DO THEY WATCH?
If figures about access
to television sets are inevitably rather vague, it is easier to record the recent
explosion in the numbers of channels available. For example, in 1991, there was
only one television channel in India; ten years later there are well over 100.
By 1998, most of the leading transnational media companies, such as Star TV, BBC,
Discovery, MTV, Sony, CNN, Disney, and CNBC were all operating in India through
cable and satellite.
In 1998, according to
Screen Digest, there were more than 2,600 television channels operating in the
world, most of them private. What sort of programs are these channels transmitting?
Two trends stand out. The first is the growth of entertainment programs in relation
to current affairs-such that news programs themselves have often become a form
of "infotainment." Miss Egypt, for example, now reads the news on Egypt's Dream
TV. In the transition from the Soviet Union to today's Russia, the broadcasting
time for fiction grew by 44 per cent (with cartoons up by 176 per cent); for entertainment
by 192 per cent. Transmission time for information programs fell by 61 per cent.
Second, countries in the
first stage of globalization tend to experience a wave of western programming;
but in the second and third waves of globalization, local versions of western
programs or genuinely local programs become more visible. Terhi Rantanen, a media
analyst at the London School of Economics, says of Russian television that "the
novelty value that western programs and advertisements once had was lost in the
1990s." Increasingly, Russians watch Russian programs.
This is also evident in
the development of Al Jazeera, the independent Qatar-based Arab news channel,
as well as Star TV and Zee TV in India and Phoenix TV in China. In all these countries,
there is a boom in local programming. As Rupert Murdoch put it "everywhere I go,
it is local programming that is proving most popular." Western influence on television
should not be underestimated, but it is not as saturating as the proponents of
cultural imperialism believe-and while there may be many American soaps filling
in the dead times in the afternoon, they are not, in general, the most popular
THE SATELLITE AND CABLE
The most profitable areas
of television content for media organizations intent on investing in the developing
world are films, soaps, sports, and children's programs; these transcend barriers
of culture and language, unlike news and current affairs, which demand knowledge
of local politics and are more likely to be subject to state control. One field
of assured success for cable and satellite stations operating in the south is
the children's market, which was neglected by national channels. In 1994, under
a quarter of Disney's $10.1 billion in revenue came from outside the US; by 2006,
it is aiming to generate half from abroad.
Overall, the most popular
multi-country channel in the south is probably MTV, which has contracts with local
stations that give it local flavor. But the one that makes the most money is ESPN
(Disney's sports channel) which claims over 120 million subscribers in Asia and
14.5 million in Latin America. Sport-dominated by soccer (a non-American global
phenomenon it should be noted)-has had the greatest expansion of all in the last
In the Middle East, the
Gulf war gave a push to the spread of satellite television. The region became
a focus for international news agencies. Bahrain, disregarding the impact on Islamic
culture, began to rebroadcast CNN 24 hours a day on conventional terrestrial systems,
with a booster to allow reception in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. This
became a spur to Arab countries to acquire their own satellite systems.
Egypt was the first to
launch an international broadcasting service for the Arab world when the Egyptian
Space Channel (ESC) started transmission on Arabsat at the end of 1990. This was
followed by Nile TV, another Egyptian international satellite service, in 1993,
and the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, run by Saudi Arabians from London. Orbit
Satellite-set up by a Saudi group in Rome in 1994-covers all countries in the
Middle East and North Africa: it carries 24 television and 24 radio networks including
CNN, Disney's entertainment and sports channels, and the Discovery channel. In
1997, Orbit Satellite was watched by 3.1 million homes in the Arab world and its
Meanwhile, in Asia, the
Phoenix Chinese Channel is a general entertainment satellite channel with most
of its programming in Mandarin. Part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation,
it was launched in Hong Kong in 1996. It also has a 24-hour movie channel broadcasting
Chinese and western film classics. In 1999, Phoenix claimed to be reaching almost
two billion people in more than 30 Asian countries, including 47 million households
in mainland China.
In India, the national
channel Doordarshan has three main competitors-Star Plus, Zee TV and the Japanese
Sony TV-but there are over 100 others available. Zee is the biggest and increasingly
makes programs in Indian languages.
THE RETURN OF THE LOCAL
The trend in many television
markets is to localize the global, to take a Western format, juggle with it, and
produce a Hindi or a Mandarin version. There is, for instance, a Saudi version
of Who Wants to be a Millionaire called Who Will Win the Million? which is one
of Saudi Arabia's most popular programs.
This has been happening
across Asia, Latin America and Russia. Russian audiences embraced foreign films,
serials, and advertising with gusto after the collapse of communism. But soon
they began to find old Soviet programs attractive again. So, even with an open-door
policy-as in Russia-the national did not surrender to the global.
Another example of this
localizing phenomenon is Al Jazeera which now reaches viewers in more than 20
Arab countries via satellite. Al Jazeera beams its signal free of charge to most
countries, so all that is needed is a dish, which is as common in the Cairo slums
as it is in the mansions of Dubai. It enjoys a worldwide market share of 35 million
viewers but, as the Arab population is about 250 million, it is not as all-pervasive
as is sometimes claimed. Yet the point about Al Jazeera is that it is steeped
in western journalistic values that have been re-crafted in an Arab guise: its
shows have names like The Opposite Direction and it has unusually aggressive questioning.
Since it grew out of a failed joint venture in 1996 between the BBC and the Saudi
company Orbit, this is not surprising; many of the journalists once worked for
In the case of India,
media empires have had to adjust their strategies to suit the Indian context.
Star TV, which in 1993 was bought by Rupert Murdoch, realized that its mainly
US-originated programming was only reaching a tiny, although wealthy, urban audience.
They therefore started adding Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films broadcast on
its 24-hour channel, and dubbing popular US soaps into Hindi. In October 1996,
Star Plus began telecasting programs in English and Hindi. In 1999 it claimed
19 million viewers in India.
Another example of this
cultural hybridism is Zee TV, India's first private Hindi-language satellite channel.
Zee was launched in October 1992 and depended initially on recycled programming.
It then broke television taboos by broadcasting programs about sex, relationships,
and horoscopes. The channel thrives on a mixture of Hindi film, serials, musical
countdowns, and quiz contests. Zee's innovative programming includes news in "Hinglish."
Despite the influence of the English language in India, the biggest media growth
is in regional languages. Even US serials like Friends (known as Hello Friends)
have been hybridized, although the latter has not been as successful as expected-the
lifestyle of the Hyderabadi versions of the New Yorker originals did not settle
in the Indian imagination.
The revenge of the local
has yet to hit places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the poverty of the region
makes it difficult for local channels to make their own programs. Countries such
as Cape Verde and Djibouti import over 90 per cent of their programs.
COMPLEXITY OF WESTERN
So the picture across
the south is mixed, depending on the novelty value of Western programs, the wealth
of the state in question, and the degree of globalization. US programs and distribution
systems remain important. And many programs made in the West do strike a chord
in unlikely places. These include Baywatch (which became very popular in certain
parts of India), Dallas, Miami Vice, and Columbo (especially in Russia). And Asia
is the biggest market for MTV, with over 135 million households in 23 countries
reputedly watching its programs regularly.
Is it possible to quantify
the penetration of western programs? John Tomlinson of Nottingham Trent University
argues that surveys of prime time scheduling around the world show that it is
domestically produced programs which almost always top the ratings during peak
viewing hours, with US imports filling the less popular times.
Stuart Cunningham of the
Queensland University of Technology agrees that the image of the West at the centre
dominating the developing world periphery is mistaken. In fact, the world is divided
into a number of regions which each have their own internal dynamics and global
ties. These regions are based not only on geography but also on common cultural,
linguistic, and historical connections. Latin America markets its programs in
Eastern Europe. The Mexican soap The Rich Also Cry was very popular in Russia
and the former Soviet republics. Egyptian television is popular across the Arab
world, while Turkish soaps are watched in central Asia.
In Latin America, US imports
were prominent only in the early stages of mass television. As the industry matured,
they were replaced by local products. The pattern in Latin America, as in Asia
and the Middle East, is that "each geolinguistic region" is dominated by one or
two centers of audiovisual production-Mexico and Brazil for Latin America, Hong
Kong for Taiwan and China, Egypt and the Lebanon for the Arab world. Zee TV is
also now targeting audiences in the rich north, in places such as Britain with
large Asian populations.
Media globalization can
go into reverse. Under the Shah, Iranian national radio and television showed
large numbers of US films and soaps. After the revolution in 1979, the media was
purged of all Western elements, which in recent years has made Iranians especially
interested in foreign satellite channels, for news, information, and above all
for entertainment. The Islamic Council Assembly decreed in 1994 that watching
international television was a "sinful act" and banned the manufacture or use
of satellite dishes.
None the less, many homes
in Iran do possess satellite dishes and the government has increased the number
of television networks from two to five in order to compete with international
television. But in spite of these efforts the national broadcasting body is thought
to have lost some 67 per cent of its audience to foreign competition. According
to one resident of Tehran, a market for boxes designed to hide satellite dishes
took off in the 1990s and some people rent out their flats to Baywatch fans-for
an income that covers the cost of the fine, in the event of discovery.
IMPACT OF WESTERN TELEVISION
There is no scientific
way of measuring the effects of television on behavior or attitudes in either
the rich world or the poor world. Quantifying how Western television alters perceptions
in the developing world has barely been attempted. Some might claim, for example,
that an aggressive interview on Al Jazeera marks a new rebelliousness in the Arab
way of life. But such people come to their conclusions impressionistically.
All manner of goods and
bads have been attributed to television. A Peruvian soap opera called Simplemente
Maria (Simply Maria), for example, was supposed to have made schooling trendy
in Lima. Maria, a maid who educated herself with the help of a tutor and who ended
up marrying her literacy teacher, was so popular that the military junta rescheduled
its meetings to watch the show. Adult literacy is said to have soared in Peru.
Media influence theorists
such as George Gerbner and Larry Gross or Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart have
all assumed a significant western influence carried with Western programming.
Dorfman and Mattelart's seminal book of the 1970s, How to Read Donald Duck, argued
that the Disney comics were "carriers" of American capitalist values. Uncle Scrooge,
in their reading, is a "device for concealing the organized power of the capitalist
class behind the pathetic sentimental solitude of a comic millionaire miser."
But some of the most interesting micro-studies take issue with the assumptions
of the cultural imperialists. One such study by Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes was
about the impact of Dallas on immigrants to Israel from Morocco, Russia, and elsewhere.
They organized 50 focus groups with people from different national backgrounds.
Even at the basic level of a discussion of what had happened in each episode,
they found divergent understandings. One of the Arabic groups "misread" the program
in a way which made it more compatible with their own cultural ethos. When Sue
Ellen ran away with her baby to her former lover and his father, the Arab group
argued that she had actually gone to live with her own father. This detail, the
researchers argued, shows that "texts" do not cross cultural boundaries intact.
Indeed, they claimed that Dallas reinforced the audience's own cultural values.
Many viewers found comfort in their distance from the troubles at Southfork ranch.
In another study, Ien
Ang wrote about the Dutch and Dallas. Ang found that her enjoyment of the show
cut against her awareness of its ideological content. In a study of 42 devotees
of the Ewing saga, Ang found that each had their own relationship to the program:
love of Pamela, exaggerated clothes, the American cities, the awfulness of JR,
being in touch with America, the close family circuit, the "reality" of the program,
the "unreality" of the program. She concluded that what appeals to us in such
a serial is connected with individual life histories, and the social situation
we are each in.
Viewers may well see what
they are supposed not to see. An air of unreality was what viewers in Egypt found
mesmerizing about the US soap The Bold and the Beautiful over the more politicized
Egyptian serial Hilmiyya Nights. The British journalist John Lloyd remembers the
Russians who, in the years before glasnost, watched Soviet propaganda featuring
the baleful poverty in the streets of the west: they gazed, he noted, not at the
beggars in the foreground, but at the luxury shops, brimming with Rolex watches
and haute couture behind them. The poverty of the beggars was familiar to them;
it was the riches that caught their eye.
And there are those who
are inured to television and see only what is akin to their own experience. Reflecting
on the impact of an Egyptian political drama, Love in a Diplomatic Pouch, Lila
Abu-Lughod noticed how villagers of Upper Egypt ignored the aspects of the program
that were not part of their experience. They picked up on the moral message of
the serial, the importance of the mother's role in raising her children. But they
ignored the men who could not commit themselves to marry for fear of losing their
freedom. She wrote, "The villagers were an elusive target for the cultural elite's
These divergent observations
are neither systematic, nor exhaustive. But they do at least puncture the simple
view of the impact of western television. Some people watch television and relax,
others become agitated, some notice the familiar, others notice only the unfamiliar.
To conduct a scientific study to measure the impact of western television, to
understand, for example, what real impact Baywatch has had on viewing communities
in Tehran, it would be necessary to observe the whole individual, and to take
into account a host of other personal and political factors. To make potential
research even more complicated, it is also possible to absorb things unconsciously.
And it is likely that the more television you watch, the more resistant you are
to any impact. Perhaps it is no wonder that this kind of research is rarely attempted
Television, then, may
influence us in many ways, and none. We should recall, as Virginia Woolf put it,
that each individual is at least 28 selves. Television merely creates a 29th.
SOAP OPERA IN KAZAKHSTAN
The mix of influences
in programming is well illustrated by a British "Know-How Fund" project in the
mid-1990s to teach Kazakhs how to make a soap opera. The aim was to twist Western
formulas into Kazakh shape. The Kazakh soap opera was to be called Crossroads,
and it was part-produced by Portobello Media, who also produced EastEnders, on
which it was loosely modeled. Crossroads aimed to teach economic literacy to Kazakhs,
incorporating issues such as privatization, market reform, and issues of ethnic
plurality into the storylines. The British introduced concepts such as the cliffhanger,
the story-lining narrative, and open-endedness. But soon cultural gulfs began
to open between the two teams. The American anthropologist, Ruth Mandel, who monitored
the experiment, describes some of the gulfs in a new book, Media Worlds (University
of California, 2002). On one occasion, for example, the Kazakhs staged a mini-revolt
against the "open nature" of the genre, demanding to know the ending to a potentially
endless story. Also the British arranged intermarriages in the story between Russians
and Kazakhs which displeased some of the Kazakh writers. Other Kazakhs were annoyed
that the evil characters were Kazakh, not Russian. After the British left, all
the intermarriages ended in divorce. And once it became a purely Kazakh production,
Crossroads entered what Peter Brooks called the "moral occult," the melodramatic
characteristic whereby the improbable meets the unlikely: the honest detective
discovers that his half-brother is his sworn enemy, and so on. TBS
Bella Thomas makes documentaries
for television. She is also an adviser to a new museum about empire in Bristol.
This article originally appeared in the London-based political and cultural monthly,
Prospect magazine, in January 2003 (issue 82). The website is: www.prospect-magazine.co.uk.