In the communication field, the term “cultural product” refers to media artifacts such as books, newspapers, magazines, recorded music, films, television programs, and related audiovisual materials. “Cultural product” succinctly conveys the juxtaposition that renders these artifacts controversial: they express cultural values of societies that produce them, yet are economic goods created, distributed, and engaged by audiences under market conditions. Because of their power to influence a society’s aesthetic and ideological environments, as well as its economy, the exchange of cultural products across political, cultural, and linguistic boundaries can be quite sensitive. Efforts to promote cultural products’ creation and dissemination – and also to control their importation and circulation – have been undertaken by a variety of organizations in diverse contexts (Hesmondhalgh 2007). Historically this has involved less developed nations restricting importation of cultural products from more developed nations, although despite moves toward free trade, more developed nations have resisted cultural imports from their peers.
Cultural products have been assumed to carry the political, economic, and social ideals of their societies of origin since the beginnings of mechanized print media. As western economies became more intricate and specialized under European colonial expansion and the Industrial Revolution, markets for cultural products grew more robust, and the products themselves more complex. A translation industry developed to increase their market reach across cultures. Concerns over the impacts of imported cultural products mounted during a period of accelerated technological innovation that began in the mid-nineteenth century and continues today. As cultural products assumed a more central position in cultural and economic relations among nations and social groups, national governments elaborated and began to enforce cultural policies. Political advocacy organizations also began monitoring media content and wielding political and economic power to press for change. A North American example is illustrative.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the US government supported the export of US-produced films through currency exchange rate guarantees, suspension of antitrust rules for international business, tax breaks, and other programs (Guback 1985). In the 1910s and 1920s, US studios produced so-called “greaser” films that depicted Mexicans and Mexican Americans as unwashed, lascivious criminals. These portrayals led to public outcry and theatre boycotts in the southwestern US and Mexico. In 1922 Mexico’s government threatened to block distribution of all films from an offending studio if representations did not improve. The filmmakers quickly developed a production code, and an industry organization, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, began reviewing films prior to export so as to avert such confrontations. This example clarifies who are the major players in cultural products trade: media industry participants (including industry organizations), government agencies, advocacy groups, and the public. Other key players would emerge later: supra-national organizations such as GATT and WTO.
Intellectual Roots And The Issues Of The 1970s
Cultural products and the organizations that create them, cultural industries, initially received theoretical attention from members of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s through 1950s (Horkheimer & Adorno 1996, 1st pub. 1944). The Frankfurt scholars joined analyses of media ownership and control with critiques of mass cultural products’ content to discuss their impact on economic conditions as well as aesthetic values. This scholarship brought attention to the multifaceted influence of cultural production and stimulated subsequent research along these lines. Midway through the twentieth century as many newly independent nations struggled to cast off the yoke of political, economic, and cultural dependency, discussions of a new world information and communication order occurred in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The content, dissemination, and impact of cultural products were directly linked to arguments about the commodification of mass media and communication’s role in maintaining global inequities.
An empirical study of international television flow by Nordenstreng and Varis (1974) summarized the lopsided distribution of programs from more developed nations to less developed ones – typically following former colonial trade routes – and highlighted the advantaged position of the US among more developed nations. This study, among others, invigorated the cultural imperialism thesis asserting that western culture displaces local culture in less developed nations where cultural products are imported and engaged by audiences on a large scale, thereby overshadowing locally produced media content. A widely read UNESCO report on the international communication status quo called for reforms to make media production and dissemination more equitable, and underscored the combined cultural and economic character of cultural products (MacBride Commission 2004).
More recent concerns about cultural products as tradable services have focused on their inclusion in regional trade agreements. Although North America and Europe pursued different methods of economic integration, the inclusion of cultural products was contested in both regions. As the 1988 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was negotiated, Canada’s historic sensitivity to cultural domination, resulting from high volumes of imported US media, clashed with the US preference to treat cultural products like any other economic good. Canada insisted that cultural products be excepted from the FTA, and the US countered by reserving the right to retaliate in other industries should Canada restrict distribution of its cultural products. In 1994 Mexico joined an expanded North American Free Trade Agreement, with little public discussion of the agreement’s potential impact on the cultural sector, though concerns were raised by Mexican intellectuals (McAnany & Wilkinson 1996).
Europe’s integration efforts date from the 1940s and display deep traditions of direct government involvement in media production and dissemination through statesubsidized publishing, film production, and public service broadcasting. These traditions have complicated the emergence of additional commercially supported media systems since the 1980s. The European Commission’s goal of establishing a vigorous regional exchange in cultural products is also challenged by considerable diversity in numbers of language speakers, the size and wealth of national economies, and the uneven productivity of media industries among European Union (EU) members. Equity and balance in the cultural product trade is at issue within the EU system since half a dozen languages and production centers predominate among more than 25 nations. As concerns the external trade in cultural products, the EU endeavors to promote the export of regionally produced media and curtail the heavy importation of outside content, especially from the US. In 1993, as the deadline to sign the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) drew near, the EU, under France’s guidance, advocated specifying limitations for US films on European screens. The heated disagreement over this provision threatened to derail the entire agreement before a last-minute compromise was reached.
The Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay was created in 1991. The agreement contains little specific language concerning the trade in cultural products, yet it should be noted that Argentina and Brazil are prolific producers of music, film, and television, especially telenovelas, which are exported throughout Latin America and beyond (Galperin 1999). In Asia, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has left cultural trade issues for its member nations to address; some have successfully slowed the importation of cultural products while developing their own multicultural, multilingual media (Lent 1990).
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the supra-national organization administering the trade in cultural products since 1995, when it took over the GATT negotiation process. Several sub-agreements negotiated under WTO auspices address specific trade issues related to cultural products. A general agreement on trade in services (GATS) established a framework for facilitating trade and investment in the “services” sector, including advertising, business, computers, finance, insurance, and market research, among others – industries that experienced tremendous growth due to digitization and diminishing costs for international telecommunications since the 1980s. The GATS annex provides that private telecommunication firms may gain adequate access to national infrastructures.
It has opened many domestic telecommunication systems to international competition, and institutionalized the “free flow of information” principle long at issue in international communication (Thussu 2006). As various types of communication content move across myriad distribution systems, the definition of cultural products and the analysis of their exchange have become more complicated. It is also increasingly difficult to control piracy as digital technology facilitates the rapid and economical reproduction of cultural products with no degradation of quality for each subsequent “generation” produced. This challenge is addressed by the WTO agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPs), a treaty establishing minimum standards for intellectual property regulation. TRIPs is strongly endorsed by the US as a means of bringing order and dispute-settlement procedures to intellectual property protection through the multilateral trading system.
A key area of dispute over intellectual property rights has been file sharing, the practice of making computer files available for downloading by other users on a computer network. A computer file containing the cultural product is transferred from a remote computer to a local computer’s hard drive or other storage medium (e.g., CD) or playback device (e.g., MP3 player). In the late-1990s concerns focused on file-sharing systems such as Napster, used for downloading music without paying royalties to the copyright holders. By the mid-2000s, concerns had expanded to audiovisual content, including television programs and feature films that computer users could download and view without paying fees. In 2007 the media conglomerate Viacom filed suit against YouTube, a popular video-sharing website where users could upload, view, and share videos they had produced themselves or recorded from other media. The presence of commercially produced, copyrighted cultural products on servers that also stored home movies and other amateur productions challenged conventional approaches to intellectual property rights enforcement.
The easy access to volumes of content among people who have computers, the Internet, and the knowledge to use them tends to obscure the vast majority of the world’s population who remain disconnected. In 2004 the G8 countries were home to only 15 percent of the world’s population, but represented nearly 50 percent of the world’s total Internet users (World Summit on the Information Society 2005). A movement to address this and related problems emerged in the early 2000s with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). A series of international meetings sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began in 2003 to “build a peoplecentered, inclusive, and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge . . .” (Building the Information Society 2003). Although some indicators suggested a narrowing of the digital divide in limited sectors by the mid-2000s, a clear pattern had emerged: slower uptake and fewer benefits derived from new technologies in the less developed nations. The WSIS concerns were reminiscent of calls for a NWICO, though with an emphasis on new, interactive technologies. It must be emphasized that these new technologies are often used to engage cultural products that are still traded as economic services and simultaneously carry cultural values from the societies that produce them.
- Building the Information Society: A Global Challenge in the New Millennium (2003). Declaration of principles: World Summit on the Information Society. At www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/ official/dop.html, accessed April 9, 2007.
- Galperin, H. (1999). Cultural industries policy in regional trade agreements: The cases of NAFTA, the European Union and MERCOSUR. Media, Culture and Society, 21(5), 627– 648.
- Guback, T. (1985). Hollywood’s international market. In T. Balio (ed.), The American film industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 463 – 486.
- Hesmondhalgh, D. (2007). The cultural industries, 2nd edn. London: Sage.
- Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1996). Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. J. Cumming). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1944).
- Lent, J. A. (1990). The development of multicultural stability in the ASEAN: The role of mass media. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 1(1), 45 –59.
- MacBride Commission (2004). Many voices, one world: Towards a new, more just and more efficient world information and communication order [Twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the “MacBride Report”]. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- McAnany, E. G., & Wilkinson, K. T. (eds.) (1996). Mass media and free trade: NAFTA and the cultural industries. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Nordenstreng, K., & Varis, T. (1974) Television traffic: a one-way street? Paris: UNESCO.
- Thussu, D. K. (2006). International communication: Continuity and change, 2nd edn. London: Hodder Arnold.
- World Summit on the Information Society (2005). The digital divide at a glance. At www.itu.int/wsis/tunis/newsroom/stats/, accessed August 28, 2007.