GLOBAL TELEVISION: Imperial Drama?

Posted: March 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

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“.

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