During the latter half of the twentieth century, most discussions about international television tended to focus on national media systems and relations of exchange among those systems. Since the 1990s, however, television has increasingly been studied as a global phenomenon. Although national systems still figure prominently, research and policy debates now explore the ways in which television participates in broader processes of globalization.
Originally, television, like radio before it, emerged as a quintessentially national medium. In almost every country, television was introduced in hopes of fostering national unity, social development, public enlightenment, and cultural preservation. Using their power to limit the number of broadcasters, governments carefully controlled access to the airwaves, either by creating public service broadcast systems or by licensing commercial systems that pledged to serve the national interest. With the exception of the western hemisphere, most nations around the world opted for public service television during early years of the medium. In countries like France, the government organized centralized networks that focused on the promotion of national culture, while in poorer countries like India and China, television was adopted as a means to economic and social development. Whether a commercial or public service, audiences in most countries had few channels to choose from during this early period and broadcasters consequently placed their first priority on serving the national mass audience.
Period Of Change
During the 1980s, however, economic reversals in Europe put pressure on the budgets of public service broadcasters, which coincided with emerging political challenges from groups that traditionally were marginalized by national TV services. Women’s organizations, labor unions, peace groups, environmental advocates, and ethnic and regional movements all criticized public service media for focusing on mass audiences and failing to represent a diverse range of perspectives. This crisis of legitimacy was exacerbated by growing competition from transnational satellite services that fell outside the domain of national broadcast regulation. Businesses supported these new technologies since they promised to expand the availability of television advertising time and diminish government control over the airwaves. Cable and satellite channels initially targeted two groups: transnational niche viewers, e.g., business executives, sports enthusiasts, and music video fans, and sub-national niche groups, e.g., regional, local, or ethnic audiences. These trends soon spread beyond Europe to countries such as India, Australia, and Indonesia. Meanwhile, in countries where national commercial systems had long prevailed, existing broadcasters likewise found themselves challenged by a growing number of niche competitors.
Changes in television were further stimulated by a new generation of corporate moguls – such as Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and Akio Morit – who aspired to build global media empires that integrated television, music, motion picture, video games, and other media enterprises. These conglomerates aimed to serve a wide variety of mass and niche markets in both information and entertainment. Although national audiences continued to play an important role in their calculations, companies such as News Corporation increasingly strategized about transnational and sub-national audiences, hoping to develop new market niches.
This “neo-network era” of multiple channels and flexible corporate structures has also fostered the growth of commercial media conglomerates outside the west, such as Zee TV in India and Phoenix TV in China. And it has forced western corporations, such as Viacom, to adapt their content to local and regional markets around the globe. For instance, MTV now operates more than a dozen distinctive channels in Asia alone, offering various mixes of global, regional, and local programming. Thus, globalization has paradoxically fostered the production and promotion of transnational media products as well as localized niche products aimed at sub-national audiences. Unlike the classical network era when TV institutions tended to focus exclusively on national mass audiences, media conglomerates today are flexibly structured to accommodate marketing strategies aimed at a variety of audiences, sometimes without regard to national boundaries. The scale and competitive power of these new television institutions have seriously undermined public broadcasting in some countries, but not all. In India, for example, new competitors have encouraged Doordarshan – the public service broadcaster – to improve program quality, conduct systematic audience research, and diversify its services.
Globalization Of The Media
Television’s changing character worldwide is part of a broader process of globalization that has been unfolding for at least five hundred years. Globalization refers on the one hand to the increasing speed and density of interactions among people and institutions around the world, a trend that manifests itself in the dynamic interdependence of global financial markets, the transnational division of labor, the interlocking system of nationstates, and the interconnection of communication and transportation systems. On the other hand, globalization also refers to changing modes of consciousness, whereby people increasingly think and talk about the world as one place. Sociologist Roland Robertson suggests that rather than the world just being itself, we increasingly imagine the world being “for itself.” We speak of global order, human rights, nuclear disarmament, and world ecology as shared experiences and collective projects. We reflect upon information from near and far and we often deliberate as if we have a stake in both local and global events. Not everyone joins in these conversations and certainly all voices are not equal, but these discussions nevertheless span greater terrain and include more people than ever before, and the outcomes of these interactions often have effects that transcend local and national boundaries.
Globalization has been facilitated over the past 150 years by electronic communication technologies like the telegraph, telephone, radio, cinema, television, and computer. Moreover, the deployment of these technologies has been linked to specific historical projects, such as European imperialism, Cold War struggle, and most recently neo-liberal, supra-national capitalism. This last project, which intensified after the end of the Cold War, is most centrally concerned with trade liberalization, as countries around the world are being pressed to eliminate restrictions on the transborder flow of goods and services, including cultural products. Consequently, no society today can confidently say that it stands outside the field of global commerce. A similar observation might be made about popular culture, since the commercial flow of goods and ideas around the world has escalated dramatically in recent times. Thus, the globalization of television is part of a longer historical trajectory. It builds upon related developments, yet it also has contributed significantly to the escalating pace of change.
Debates about transnational media flows began as early as the 1920s. In fact, most national broadcast systems, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), were put in place as a bulwark against foreign media influences, particularly Hollywood films and US popular music. Throughout the twentieth century, preserving and promoting national culture over the airwaves was characterized as a key element of national sovereignty in Europe, Latin America, and especially in the newly independent states of the postcolonial world, such as Ghana, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Scholars such as Herbert I. Schiller, Dallas Smythe, and Armand Mattelart were especially strong critics of US TV exports, claiming that they played an important role in sustaining an international structure of economic and political domination. They furthermore contended that the huge flood of media messages exported from the core industrialized countries served the interests of a western ruling class by squeezing out authentic local voices and promoting a culture of consumption. This “media imperialism” thesis emerged in the 1960s and enjoyed widespread acceptance into the 1980s.
New Attraction To Domestic Programs
Although many scholars still adhere to its central tenets, others, such as Joseph Straubhaar, began to notice the erosion of Hollywood’s dominance as the productivity of local TV industries increased. For example, in Latin America, domestic programs generally tend to draw larger audiences than imported products. Scholars furthermore point to the increasing amount of television trade within Latin America and note that when audiences tune to a foreign program, they generally prefer a show that has been imported from a country with a similar language and/or culture. In Venezuela, for example, viewers are most likely to prefer a show imported from Mexico’s Televisa or Brazil’s Globo rather than a Hollywood production. Likewise, Taiwanese audiences seem to prefer Japanese or Hong Kong serial dramas, and Kuwaiti audiences prefer programs from Cairo or Beirut. Consequently, the dominant power of Hollywood exporters has been attenuated by more complicated patterns of distribution.
One indication of these new patterns of TV flow can be gleaned from the emergence of global media capitals, such as Bombay (now Mumbai), Cairo, and Hong Kong, each of them now competing for growing shares of the global media market. Such locales have developed transnational logics of production and distribution, ones that do not necessarily correspond to the geography, interests, or policies of particular nation-states. For example, Hong Kong television is produced, distributed, and consumed in Taipei, Beijing, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Similarly, Mumbai, once the home of the national Indian film industry, is now the center for transnational media enterprises that operate across the film, television, and music industries. For example, Zee TV – South Asia’s most popular Hindi-language commercial satellite channel – also provides a satellite service to Europe, distributes music videos in Los Angeles, and mounts film productions targeted at audiences around the globe. As numerous critics have noted, Indian television services are going global, seeking out new audiences, new financing, and fresh sources of creative talent.
Finally, even in countries where the presence of US programs is pervasive, the impact on viewers remains a matter of speculation. Cultural studies researchers such as David Morley, Ien Ang, Marie Gillespie, and James Lull have shown how audiences make unanticipated uses of television programming, often reworking the meanings of transnational television texts to accommodate the circumstances of their local social context. Consequently, the homogenizing effect of transnational television flows has been called into question.
New Critical Perspectives
These challenges to the media imperialism thesis have formed the foundation of globalization studies of television and they have opened the door to new critical perspectives. John Tomlinson suggests, for example, that television scholars should shift their attention from the analysis of international television to a critique of global capitalist modernity. Such an approach would still be alert to questions of power and dominance, but it would no longer fetishize local cultures nor would it make sweeping assertions about the function of the medium as an unqualified tool of capitalist domination. Television studies should instead emphasize the ways in which electronic media alter our sense of connection to people, events, and institutions in distant locales. By fostering a web of complex connectivity, television participates in the production of new opportunities as well as new anxieties. Our increasingly “glocal” popular culture may, in fact, lay the foundations for nascent transnational political movements around issues such as labor, ecology, and human rights.
Similarly, Ien Ang points to the global/local dynamics of television, arguing that despite the growing prominence of media conglomerates, the actual uses that audiences make of popular texts is far more diverse than previously imagined. The play of power in global television is to be found in the ways that media conglomerates attempt to set structural limits on the production and circulation of meaning, and contrarily on the ways in which viewers both comply with and defy these semiotic limits. This play of power requires an understanding of industries and audiences, as well as the diverse social contexts in which the contest over meaning arises.
The study of international television today examines programming, audiences, and institutions, but it also encourages us to consider the role that electronic media have played for almost two centuries in the longer trajectory of globalization. Writing shortly before the first television satellite launch in 1962, Marshall McLuhan hyperbolically heralded the arrival of a “global village.” Perhaps more modestly today, we might suggest that television facilitates processes whereby villages around the world increasingly perceive their circumstances in relation to global issues, forces, and institutions, as well as local and national ones.
- Ang, I. (1996). Living room wars: Rethinking media audiences for a postmodern world. London: Routledge.
- Curtin, M. (2007). Playing to the world’s biggest audience: The globalization of Chinese film and TV. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Downing, J. D. H. (1996). Internationalizing media theory: Transition, power, culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Gillespie, M. (1995). Television, ethnicity and cultural change. London: Routledge.
- Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening culture, viewing politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Morley, D. (2000). Home territories: Media, mobility, and identity. London: Routledge.
- Schiller, H. I. (1992). Mass communications and American empire. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1969).
- Straubhaar, J. (1991). Beyond media imperialism: Asymmetrical interdependence and cultural proximity. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, 1–11.
- Tomlinson, J. (1999). Globalization and culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.