Is television an outpost of cultural imperialism? More than two billion people in poor countries now have access to a set. But, rather than envying the west, they are increasingly tuning in to local programmesby Bella Thomas / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
In 1999, an extremist group in Karachi launched a campaign against un-Islamic practices in Pakistan, where satellite television is popular. The most arresting stunt was the burning of a pile of television sets. The group, Tehrik-e-Insdad Munkirat, declared: “the gadgets are satanic devices which corrupt people and society.” It is not alone in thinking this.
Today America is threatened by a hatred that is inflamed by its seduction of television audiences across the world. Or so it is often said. “They hate us because they see endless pictures of our rich, sleazy, easy lives in the soap operas shown around the world”-this was a stock-in-trade of commentators, such as Thomas Friedman, trying to understand the roots of 11th September. In the poorest parts of the world, such images are said to have a particularly malign influence.
The ubiquity of images of American life-with its violence and sexual licence-is supposed to explain both the revulsion against America and the growing Americanisation of the globe. This may seem paradoxical but it is possible to have a range of responses to the same deluge of images-ranging from hatred to envy to a passionate desire to emulate.
This report will delve into those assumptions. It will ask how many of the world’s poor actually have access to a television. It will then look at how much western programming is seen in the developing world and what evidence there is about how it influences people.
These questions are surprisingly difficult to answer. There are few reliable statistics relating to television viewing in Asia and Africa. And there is far more research on the programming strategy of broadcasters in developing countries than on what is actually watched, or, more elusively, on the impact it has. There is a tendency to assume that the poor-unlike the savvy rich-imbibe what they see wholesale. But the effect in say, rural Algeria, of a programme like Dallas is not to create a new cadre of full-blown capitalists bowling through the hammams. Algerians from remote villages are capable of seeing the Texan drama through nostalgic eyes, as representative of a close-knit family and a patriarchal world which they are losing. The way people respond to the same programmes is diverse and surprising; we all bring our own experience to bear on what we see.
HOW MANY POOR PEOPLE WATCH TELEVISION?
In 1980s Cairo, a popular joke used to go around…