Issue No. 2
Spring 1999
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TBS VIRTUAL SYMPOSIUM

Transnational Broadcasting in Asia

An online discussion with Philip Kitley, Keval Kumar, Brian Shoesmith, Amos Owen Thomas, and Tony Wilson
biographies of participants


TBS: Some experts believe transnational broadcasting has the potential to bring harmony between subgroups and between nations. Others believe the opposite, that the diversity of cultures that transnational broadcasting reflects and spreads will in the long run cause people to become more concerned with their own local culture, politics, and identity, and cause them to watch local broadcasting more predominantly than transnational. How do you see this being manifested in Asia?

Keval Kumar: It has already started happening in India/Asia. The local language channels have many more viewers than the national or transnational channels. For instance, the Tamil channels in south India—Raj TV, Vijay TV, and Sun TV, which also reach Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and the whole Gulf region—have far greater interest for the Tamil community in Asia than any of Murdoch's clutch of Star TV channels. This holds true for some of the other south Indian language channels too, such as the Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam channels. The Hindi language channels such as Zee and Sony have been transnational channels from the start, and they compete directly with Doordarshan's (Indian National Television) national and regional channels.

Amos Owen Thomas: Transnational broadcasting has provided a new media outlet for ethnic minorities, which was largely unavailable on public television or government-licensed commercial television in Asia which sought to promote national culture in the post-colonial era. Thus ironically the success of transnational television in Asia has not been due to interest in globalized "Western" culture but the renaissance of ethnic subcultures, often located geographically across borders. Examples of this are television in Indian languages, which finds audiences in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Gulf states, Fiji, Mauritius, etc. Hopefully after cultural nationalism and subcultural pride there will emerge in Asia an era of personal cultural eclecticism stimulated by a wide offering of transnational media alternatives.

Tony Wilson: From the perspective of their audiences, transnational broadcasting is often heavily resisted. But equally, many viewers undertake creative readings, adapting or selecting from content in ways which are appropriate to their own cultural position. This is not, however, to detract from the need to undertake local cultural production, for which there are proven large audiences.

Brian Shoesmith: I would see transnational broadcasting in Asia as both encouraging cross-cultural dialogue and encouraging identification with local cultures simultaneously. Viewing practices indicate that this is an already deeply ingrained practice but it varies from country to country, culture to culture. In Indonesia there has been a perception among middle class audiences that news (in the Suharto era certainly) was suspect and Australian TV news was watched closely, also CNN. In China watching CCTV News is almost a requirement of being Chinese, despite its acknowledged shortcomings. But Chinese audiences like to watch Western-produced documentaries, especially science programs (or at least this has been my experience). In short, it is very difficult to generalize about TV in Asia.

Philip Kitley: I do not believe that transnational broadcasting has the power in itself to contribute to a more harmonious world order. I do believe, however, that transnational broadcasting can contribute to opening up the domestic and transnational public spheres, and that the freer circulation of information can contribute to the enhancement of civil society. That may not always be a harmonious process or outcome. For example, when Singapore and the Philippines exchanged television and press stories about the official execution of Filipina Flor Contemplacion, the different interpretations of the meaning of the event led to a breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In each country, popular sentiment was inflamed against the other country as a result of what Warwick Mules and I have called the re-signification of meaning transnationally. (Kitley and Mules "Transnational Communications, Diplomacy and the Re-signification of Meaning in Regional Relations." The UTS Review 4.2:155-173).

TBS: To go along with question one, how has transnational broadcasting in Asia affected local products? Has it stifled them or stimulated them? If the latter, is the local product genuinely local, or merely copies of imported products, such as music videos, "Dallas"-type dramas and other forms that originated outside the region?

Shoesmith: Again it is extraordinarily difficult to generalize. However, a couple of observations. In many respects television production in countries with authoritarian political regimes was pretty dull stuff which made the US- and European- produced materials look pretty good when they became available. In Indonesia a number of colleagues have observed to me that the open skies policy with respect to TV had an entirely beneficial effect on local productions. They became more polished with higher production values. The fact that they were clones of Western programs (quiz shows, variety shows etc.) was not seen as a problem. I think that there is a sense of better our own dross than theirs, but then it's much more complex than that, involving attitudes towards modernity, etc.

Kumar: Transnational has undoubtedly affected local programs. The program genres like the news bulletin, the soap opera, the sitcom and the game show have had a great influence on local products. Local versions of these genres are often no more than poor imitations. At the same time, local language channels have developed indigenous genres such as those based on Indian film songs. The best example of this is the musical program called "Chhaya Geet" and the popular game show called "Antakshari" (literally "Final Syllable"). Most of the major Indian languages now have their own versions of these two totally indigenously developed television genres. Yet another genre which has been indigenously developed is the religious epic, such as the "Mahabharatha," "Ramayana," "Sri Krishna," and others.

Wilson: Local appropriations of global formats can be very productive. For instance, in Malaysia, the weekly live transmission of a discussion program Global has taken talk show form, and allowed the exploration of national and international issues for a wide audience. Here the popular talk show format functions in development communication.

Kitley: Transnational broadcasting services have introduced competition into national television systems. In Indonesia, satellite services and spillover from neighboring Malaysia in the late 1980s was the catalyst for the introduction of five new commercial television stations after nearly thirty years of state monopoly broadcasting. These local stations were intended by the then-government to "domesticate the global" to bring transnational programs, formats and content into line with domestic values. The emulation of transnational program formats—the soap opera, for example—did not, however, always lead to the results producers wanted. When the national broadcaster in Indonesia copied the soap format or genre to produce a program it expected would be popular just because it was a soap opera, the program failed because the national broadcaster tried to use the soap formula as a vehicle for pushing central government policies. The audience disliked the didactic nature of the program, and many people ended up looking forward to the appearance of the nasty, bitchy character, thus subverting the government’s aspirations.

Thomas: The general consensus among those working in the cultural industries of Asia is that transnational broadcasting has stimulated the growth of local cultural products, if by nothing else the large airtime to be filled. That some of that programming appear to be copies of "Western" genre such as soap operas and music videos is true. But one has to realize firstly that many Asian cultures have long and varied traditions of drama and music which for decades now have been well adapted to film and television, such as Indian movies and Cantonese pop music. Secondly, all cultures through history have not remained stagnant but have adapted and metamorphosed on contact with external cultures as much as through internal innovation. Thirdly, if one sees the newer cultural products as being hybrids combining the best of both worlds rather than mere clones of "Western" archetypes, the issue of cultural imperialism recedes in relevance.

TBS: Some say that transnational broadcasting will stop the "information monopoly" of the West and result in a more balanced communication and exchange of information, a "global village," between East and West. Others argue that although there is a chance for the East to reach the West, this reach is insignificant, and that cultural imperialism and cultural invasion are inherent in transnational media. What are your thoughts?

Thomas: While there is hope that the growth of the television industry in Asia stimulated by transnational satellite broadcasting may alleviate the information imbalance, the fact remains that much of the technology and programming is still under the control of "Western" global media conglomerates. Furthermore audience markets in the West/North are more ethnocentric and less amenable to cultural imports from the East/South than vice-versa. What must not be ignored is the growth of cultural product exchange within geo-linguistic regions, for example Greater China, made possible by political liberalization. Furthermore there are "invisible" cultural exports within diasporic networks that stretch across continents such as those of non-resident Indians reaching as far away as South Africa, the UK, Caribbean and the United States. Another noteworthy phenomenon is the popularity in many Asian television markets of non-Western programming imports such as Japanese cartoons, Indian epics, Chinese kung-fu movies and Latin American soap operas.

Shoesmith: I'm not sure about the cultural imperialism thesis. I have heard Loatians complain more bitterly about Thai programming than US programming, Vietnamese filmmakers complain bitterly about the effects of Hong Kong martial arts and gangster films on their markets, Indian films have been perceived as more of a problem in Indonesia than Hollywood is, and so on. Indeed my research in China has indicated a desire among TV producers to become more professional in their practices, which in some respects is a coded expression for becoming more like the West, because they perceive that TV producers there may act within a freer environment. So I'm pretty ambivalent about this. While you can see cultural values apparently being imposed, there is equally a desire to take from the West.

Kumar: It's in the area of "news flows" that one sees the monopoly of the Western news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press. The BBC and CNN, while not being watched so avidly as local news channels, are the primary sources of international news, besides the transnational news agencies. These set the agenda for national broadcasters such as Doordarshan, Zee India TV, Pakistan TV (PTV), MBC, ESC and al-Jazeera TV. Watch any of 40-odd channels in Asia and you cannot help but notice that their news bulletins are poor copies of the footage (and often the text too) of the Anglo-American networks.

Kitley: The idea of "balanced communication" between East and West oversimplifies the flow of transnational broadcasting products and services. For example, Latin American programs are very popular in Indonesia. So are spectacular programs such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both produced in India. The Japanese drama Oshin was very popular in Indonesia. Thus the flows are not completely dominated by the West, or by Hollywood. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana were also very popular in the UK, and became the site of cultural reaffirmation, and also the stimulus for flows of funds back to India for use in political campaigns from the diasporic community. As national production systems develop further in the Asian region, I am sure that there will be an increasing regional trade in television programming, matching the impressive growth of intra-regional trade in conventional goods and services.

Wilson: Transnational narrowcasting from Asia to the West will allow overseas diasporic audiences to be addressed by stations producing content in Hong Kong, Malaysia and so on--so that Asian people living in the US or UK, for instance, can retain sensitivity to their own live culture.

TBS: Transnational broadcasting in Asia, like in any other area, must pay significant attention to property and privacy rights. How does this manifest itself in the region, and how are copyright laws affecting and being affected by media globalization?

Shoesmith: Copyright and intellectual property rights remain a problem in much of Asia despite the compliance of various governments with Western demands to control piracy. This is both a cultural and economic issue which cannot be dealt with in a paragraph. Nevertheless, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Western tourists are a major market for pirated material.

Kumar: The question of copyright is hotly debated in Asia, but because of the laxity in enforcing such a right it's not taken so seriously by broadcasters. In India, the main issue relates to Hindi films and film-song based programs. Film producers insist that video, music cassettes, terrestrial TV, satellite TV and cable TV are different media, and that each has to buy these rights from producers. Privacy is not yet a major issue because tabloid-type television in which the private lives of politicians and film stars has yet to make a mark in Asia.

Thomas: Transnational broadcasting in Asia owes much of its success to illegal or quasi-legal cable networks, which downlinked and rebroadcast satellite television signals without recognizing copyright. In some cases these networks capitalized on vague or non-existent laws governing transnational broadcasts, while in other cases they found creative ways to circumvent or defy repressive laws forbidding such broadcasts. But in the long term there is a convergence of interest between governments, wishing to exercise some measure of control over what is broadcast, and transnational broadcasters, wishing to collect revenues from their audiences or the cable rebroadcasters, to regulate the market. continued

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Copyright 1999 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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