The term “Americanization” has been used with varying intended meaning and with varying degrees of precision over the last three or four decades of communication research. The common element is a reference to a process or trend affecting either the media of countries external to the USA or the generality of media and media-related practices globally. When and where the term is used, it is usually based on the assumption that American mass media are in some respects dominant and ubiquitous and exert a strong pull on other systems to become like them or to incorporate content imported from the USA.
The term (or the idea behind it) has been applied both positively and negatively, but more often the second. Three main contexts of its use can be distinguished. The first relates to the general debate about “cultural imperialism” that began in the 1960s; the second to the consequences for European media in particular of the internationalization of satellite television transmission following the 1977 World Administrative Radio Conference, and of the subsequent trend toward privatization of audiovisual media. The third context has been provided by a pessimistic assessment of the condition of political communication and the relation between media and politics at the end of the twentieth century.
Global Political Background Following World War II
The background to these interrelated contexts is provided by the circumstances following the end of World War II in 1945. The main relevant components of the situation were the great extension of American power in the world, the destruction or disarray of most of the European media, and the start of a global ideological struggle between communism and the “free world,” in which the media became a principal weapon.
The imminent arrival of television (as a new medium frontier awaiting development) added another element. Relevant also was the basic division of the world into an impoverished and undeveloped south and east and a richer north and west. Although the term was not in circulation at the time, it can be inferred that “Americanization” of the media and media systems would involve an openness to news and entertainment produced in great surplus by American media industries, a commitment to liberal values and freedom of expression, and a fundamental reliance on the free market in place of government financing and control. In the earliest postwar phase, Americanization could be and was associated with positive notions of democratization, economic development, and liberation from restrictive cultural and political systems (e.g. Lerner 1958). In the liberated or occupied territories of Europe and the Far East, it offered the chance of a new beginning. Media systems and journalistic practice were reconstructed with some reference to American professional practice, even if American “mass culture” was still regarded in Europe with traditional suspicion.
In respect of the first context named above, the climate surrounding American media influence changed quite radically during the 1960s, as the undoubted dominance of American media in much of the world was reinterpreted as evidence of (at best) unwitting propaganda for western capitalism and consumerist values and (at worst) naked neoimperialist ambitions (e.g. Schiller 1992).
The causes lay less in any objective change of circumstances than in the rise of New Left critical theory at home and the rising consciousness of subordination in what was then being called the “third world.” The attack on American media and their influence was spearheaded and given intellectual weight during the early 1970s by Latin American researchers in particular. The region, semi-developed economically, was most vulnerable to penetration by American media, for cultural and economic reasons, especially in the context of the Cold War. Covert American support for the coup d’état against Allende in Chile in 1973, following a domestic propaganda war by Chilean media, provided ammunition for critics. A diaspora of Chilean intellectuals fixed part of the blame on the baleful influence of American media. The contemporary rise in the 1960s and beyond of semiological theories and methods for exposing the hidden messages of media content added to the possibilities for blaming the media. All American-originated content, however seemingly innocuous, become potentially suspected of hidden propagandism.
Studies Of Global Media Flows
The tide of ideological criticism became inextricably mixed during the 1970s with a wider and less politically inspired campaign for a more balanced flow of international communication, following an accumulation of evidence that showed that most news in the world, on television or in print, tended to be dominated by the concerns of America, if not actually by American content, even in distant countries with other, more pressing concerns. The general findings were shown in “world maps” drawn in proportion to the presence of different territories in world news.
The reasons could be found more in the operations of news agencies and in the culture economics of news media than in conscious imperialism, but Americanization was nevertheless widely seen by many media theorists, even if not by world populations, as a problem condition for the rest of the world. Much the same applied to the unbalanced flow of televised entertainment, with American products seemingly in excessive supply (Varis 1974). UNESCO became a forum for debates on the issue and acquired a reputation for anti-Americanism as a result. The issue cumulated in the appointment and then reporting of the MacBride Commission (2004) into the causes and solutions of problems in this territory. By the 1980s, however, the world was changing quite rapidly (and world media as well) and the broad issue was to some extent defused without resolution.
Shortly before this date, elements of the debate were summed up in the title of a very influential book by British media scholar Jeremy Tunstall: The media are American (1977). This on the one hand confirmed and explained American media dominance in the twentieth century and on the other hand pointed to quite large areas of world media, aside from the communist world, that were not particularly dominated by the USA, notably India and the Arab world.
Changes In European Film And Television
The second context in which “Americanization” became a current term was more specific and no longer political in any primary sense. As Tunstall had shown, World War I had dealt a severe blow to the nascent but flourishing film industries of several European countries, leading to an easier postwar US dominance in 1945. Even so, there were renewed aspirations to rebuild national film industries in Europe, aided initially by economic restrictions on US imports. Preferential treatment was given for reasons of cultural and linguistic nationalism to domestic production. The new television systems were sheltered in most of Europe by national governmental monopolies, and these restricted both advertising and foreign imports.
These protectionist regimes were under strain for economic reasons and facing collapse by the end of the 1970s for some new reasons, especially the arrival of new (re)transmission technologies by way of cable and satellite that threatened national sovereignty of the air waves, and by the rise of governments (especially in the UK and Germany) that either welcomed or tolerated privatization and expansion of television systems for their own reasons.
The expansion and transformation of European television in the 1980s and beyond could only take place on the basis of a large importation of (primarily) American television films, drama, and entertainment. European audiovisual industries were quite underdeveloped. The main exception to the trend was the UK, which remained largely self-sufficient, but in fact its expansion was also quite limited until the 1990s. These developments were also coincidental with the accelerated formation of a new European Community institutional framework and identity, beginning with expansion to 12 nations and elections to a European Parliament in 1979. One central project was the formation of a common European space in which all communications could flow freely and where hopefully strong new cultural industries would flourish. The implementation of the EU directive “Television without frontiers” in 1989, following a period of debate, was hailed as a victory for European media and seen as an undesirable new form of protectionism by the USA.
Against this background, “Americanization” came in Europe to incorporate several elements: too many US imports per se; negative features of content, especially superficiality, “dumbing down,” and homogenization; unfair competition with domestic cultural production; too much advertising (widely seen as the great vice of American television); and “commercialization” of the media generally. The last of these implied subordination of editorial and cultural standards to short-term profit, neglect of public service objectives, and weaker democratic accountability, plus a tendency to private media monopoly.
Less clearly, “Americanization” also meant the adoption of formats and of news values and media customs that were thought to typify American television in particular. The evidence seemed to confirm early fears, with high proportions of US-originated entertainment on many of the new commercial channels and a gradual flight of audiences from the once dominant national public broadcasters. However, not all the fears mentioned were confirmed, especially not the projected decline or dilution of news and information services. Moreover, research also established that “Americanization” was a limited phenomenon in extent and in time, not an unstoppable disease of the system. The taste for American content was real enough, but so was the preference for homegrown fiction and entertainment, the national language, and things local and regional.
A Third Phase Of “Americanization”
The third phase of “Americanization” was associated with a different kind of critique, originating both in the USA and in Europe. Its causes are obscure, but a common element was a view that the media were becoming increasingly powerful and important as well as global, and increasingly driven by commercial imperatives and by a set of media-cultural values that were often at odds with the true informational needs of citizens and of other social institutions. Attention focused on political communication, with a link being made between the evidence of decline in political participation, trust, and interest and certain dominant tendencies and practices of the media.
The latter included a persistent neglect of, or negativity toward, politics and politicians, a concentration on “infotainment” and personalities, and a neglect of substantive issues. More specifically, the media were being used and seen to be used as tools of political marketing and manipulation rather than as a means of democratic public communication. In an influential study, Swanson and Mancini (1996) used the terms “Americanization” and “modernization” interchangeably to describe the planned use of media in election campaigns, with potentially negative effects on citizen trust and involvement. Techniques of professional campaign management first developed in the USA were shown to be imported into other countries. For some critics (e.g., Blumler & Kavanagh 1999), the term “mediatization” of politics was regarded as more satisfactory than “Americanization,” but the general effect at the time was hypothesized as more harmful than otherwise for a healthy public sphere.
To some degree, the relevance and specificity of these three instances of the idea of “Americanization” have been dissipated. It has always been a rather weak concept and the attributed effects were often due to more general changes in media practice and culture and other powerful driving forces, such as those of technology or the market. However, a broader notion of “Americanization” survives in the proposition advanced by Hallin and Mancini (2004, 254 – 9) that a dominant (liberal) model of media relations with politics and of a more homogenized journalistic culture worldwide does owe much historically to American influence over an extended period.
As a postscript, we might also note that Tunstall (2007) has revisited the theme of his work of 30 years ago and recorded the relative, but very marked, decline in the hold of America over foreign media firms, content, and audiences and the loss of control over the new world agenda. Americanization has not been reversed but has rather faded into the background of influences and, by implication, can no longer be blamed for the continuing or new failings of media elsewhere.
- Blumler, J. G., & Kavanagh, D. (1999). The third age of political communication, influences and fears. Political Communication, 16(3), 209 –230.
- De Grazia, V. (2005). Irresistible empire: America’s advance through 20th century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
- Gerbner, G., & Marvanyi, G. (1977). The many worlds of the world’s press. Journal of Communication, 27(1), 52 – 66.
- Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Lerner, D. (1958). The passing of traditional society. New York: Free Press.
- MacBride Commission (2004). Many voices, one world: Towards a new, more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Schiller, H. (1992). Mass communications and American empire, 2nd edn. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1969.)
- Swanson, D., & Mancini, P. (eds.) (1996). Politics, media and modern democracy. Westport, CT:
- Tunstall, J. (1977). The media are American. London and New York: Constable and Columbia University Press.
- Tunstall, J. (2007). The media were American: US mass media in decline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Varis, T. (1974). Global traffic in television. Journal of Communication, 24(1), 102 –109.