Archive for March, 2012

Like Hollywood movies, American television is often criticized as a force of “cultural imperialism”. There can be no doubt that American television programmes enjoy massive global popularity, despite the emergence of popular non-US programmes from other regions such as Latin America. British television dramas are also popular worldwide, including in America. Like the movie business, the television industry is being transformed by globalization of cultural products.

See the following articles about the global television industry:

In 2010, the Economist published this suvey of the television industry: “Changing the Channel“. On the question of American cultural influence, see New York Times article, World Falls for American Media, Even As It Sours On America. The Economist asked the familiar question: “Do American television channels spread cultural imperialism?“.

The Economist also asked why American television dramas always follow the lives of rich people, Watching rich people on TV”. This theme was examined three decades ago when the American television drama “Dallas” was popular throughout the world and became the subject of many  studies focused on the question of cultural imperialism — not all of them coming to the same conclusions. One famous study was by scholars Katz and Liebes, whose “decoding Dallas” study, “The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas” compared how the show was watched and received in various countries. This link references that work, also published in book form.

The Latin Amerian “telenovela” drama, even though originally influenced by American television soap operas, is often cited as an example of television programming that has been successfully exported throughout the world despite competition from U.S. programmes. The hugely successful telenovela “Ugly Betty” was even adapted for the U.S. market. At the same time, millions of Hispanic people living in the United States watch telenovelas in Spanish.

Much has been written, journalistically and academically, about the telenovela phenomenon — there is also a telenovela entry in Wikipedia linked here, providing a description and broad overview. This article on the telenovela explosion, “Romancing the Globe” was originally published in Foreign Policy in 2005.

On another aspect of telenovelas, this article in the Wall Street Journal describes how plots have absorbed the criminal culture of drug trafficking for which the region is notorious, “The Telenovela Goes Narco”. See this article on the success of Mexican telenovelas in China. Also see this interesting article in the New York Times, “US Census Bureau Uses Telenovelas to Reach Hispanics”, about how the U.S. government is working with the producers of the telenovela “Diablo” to encourage Hispanics to comply with the census.

Not all globally popular television shows are American, of course, a fact that challenges the “cultural imperialism” theory. Besides the global success of  Latin American “tele-novelas”, some countries have produced television programmes that have been phenomenally successful internationally. One example is the Japanese drama “Oshin”, which was exported to nearly 60 countries and was hugely popular in countries, such as Egypt, that have little in common with Japanese cultural values. See this Wikipedia entry on the Oshin phenomenon, as well as an academic paper, linked here,  on “Oshindrome in Thailand”.

More recently, Turkish soap operas have, to the surprise of many, won over huge television audiences throughout the Arab world. One of them, called “Noor” has become so popular that it made Istanbul a favourite tourist destination for millions of Arab. As an article in the Huffington Post put it: “Turkey is wielding influence once again in the Arab world — not militarily, but through its soap operas.”

For more on the success of Turkish soap operas, see this article in the New York Times, “Turks Put Twist in Racy Soaps”. Also Foreign Policy published this analysis of the Turkish soaps phenomenon: “Leave it to Turkish soap operas to conquer hearts and minds”.  And this article in the Guardian describes the Arab tourist boom in Istanbul thanks to the popularity of Turkish soaps such as “Noor”. Also see this article in the New York Times: “Turkish Television Takes on Topic of Child Brides“.

See this short video report, below, “Arab World is Transfixed by Turkish Soap Operas“.

 The Chinese are fascinated by American culture, but there is still some resistance — not cultural, but political — especially when American imports threaten or offend the country’s Communist regime. This occurred recently to a popular Chinese talent TV show called “Happy Girl” (see image below) inspired by American talent shows using the same format. China’s regime suddenly ordered that the show be taken off the air, apparently because it featured “voting” for contestants. See this article in the Economist, “No Voting Please, We’re Chinese”.

Finally, see this article in the Economist on how the television industry has changed: Here, There and Everywhere: Television Is Spreading in New Directions. See also this article in the New York Times about how major U.S. media groups are buying foreign TV producers to find concepts and formats, “Trolling Overseas for Concepts to Mine“.


The symbolic links between political power and cinema — and notably Hollywood — stretch bac to the earliest days of the movie industry.

For general background reading, see the chapter on movies in my book Weapons of Mass Distraction. See also the Klaus Dodds essay, “Have you Seen Any Good Films Lately: Geopolitics, International Relations and Film“. Also see “Lights, Camera….Covert Action: The Deep Politics of Hollywood“.

Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse have become synonymous with global American culture. Historically, the Disney company worked directly with the U.S. government as part of its diplomatic initiatives. During the Second World War, Disney made many propagands cartoons to appeal to American patriotism and demonize Hitler and the Nazis. After the war, Disney played an instrumental role in the U.S. government’s “Good Neighbor Policy” towards Latin America, notably by making movies and cartoons about the region.

Interestingly, it was from South America that the most articulate opponents of Disney “imperialism” emerged, particularly the Marxist critique against Disney as a cultural vehicle for “capitalist” propaganda. The best-known example of this critique is Ariel Dorfman, whose book How to Read Donald Duck decoded the Disney cartoons as propagands for American imperialism. For a general background on the issue of Disney imperialism or globalization, see this article on the BBC site, “Spotlight on Disney’s Cultural Legacy“. See also this piece titled “A Mickey Mouse Approach to Globalization“. See also this article in the Christian Science Monitor, “In 2,000 Years Will the World Remember Disney or Plato?

With the rise competing national cinemas and the globalization of the international movie market, Hollywood’s power has been waning in recent decades. Hollywood can no longer make “American” movies and export them globally with the same success as in the past.

On the transformation of Hollywood, see this article, linked  here, published in The Wall Street Journal in August 2010: “Plot Change: Foreign Forces Transform Hollywood Films”. The article notes: “The rising clout of international audiences is a sea change for Hollywood. Decades ago, a movie’s foreign box office barely registered with studio executives. Now, foreign ticket sales represent nearly 68% of the roughly $32 billion global film market, up from roughly 58% a decade ago.” Finally, see this article published in The Economist in May 2010: The WorldWide Cinema Boom: The Box Office Strikes Back“. 

When France announced the launch of its state-backed all-news channel “France24“, it was trumpetted as a global challenger to the domination of CNN and the BBC. Today the global news wars have intensified with the emergence of state-backed all-news channels from the Middle East (Al Jazeera), Russia (RT), China (CNC) and other regions. The ambitions of states in the area of global TV news makes clear a link between global news and diplomacy.

The Economist argued that global news broadcasters seem “hungrier for influence than for profits” (see the link to that article here). Another article in the Economist, “Waves of the Web” focuses on the presence of Western news broadcasters in the developing world (see link here).

In the Guardian, see “News thorugh French eyes: Chirac takes on ‘Anglo-Saxon imperialism'”, linked here. Also on France’s global broadcasting ambitions, “France24 to challenge CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera”, linked here. And in Business Week, “CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and….France24?, linked here.

On Al Jazeera, see these articles: “A CNN for the Developing World” and “Can Al Jazeera Topple Governments?

On China’s global news ambitions, in the Guardian: “China launches global TV news network”, linked here. And “China funds English news channel CNC World in push for soft power”, linked here. Also see “China’s State TV Expands Globally“.

Article in the Columbia Journalism Review on Russia’s state-funded RT network, linked here.

The United States government launched an all-news TV network in Arabic called Al Hurra to reach populations of the Arab world with an “American perspective” on news. The U.S, government also launched a pop radio station called Radio Sawa. For articles on Al Hurra, see “The Al Hurra Project” and “Lost in Translation: Al Hurra — America’s Troubled Efforts to Win Middle East Hearts and Minds“. Also see in the Huffington Post: “Al Hurra: Still a Bad Idea“. On Radio Sawa, see “Radio Sawa: America’s New Venture in Radio Broadcasting“.

In the video below, from a report on Russia’s RT, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells Congress that America is losing the all-news propaganda war: