Washington, D.C. IN A RECENT international symposium of TV executives, media analyst Erik Barnouw explained why U.S. television was so popular cross-culturally. American programs, he argued, offer “a homogenized product that represents no one culture. It is formula fiction that endlessly recycles a mythology of its own, a mythology that can be understood anywhere but is really of nowhere.” Indeed, it does seem like the whole world is watching us or some version of us through the peculiar one-way window of television. While countries such as the United States and Japan import less than 5 percent of their programming, in the Third World more than half of the programming is bought from industrialized countries. And there is, as Barnouw implies, something “never-never-land”-ish and eternal about I Love Lucy’s domestic crises and the escapades of Charlie’s Angels. But that doesn’t mean that American TV programming goes out to the world culture-free, mythologically laundered of its Americanness. It always arrives in other people’s homes with a foreign accent, and for better or worse it reflects what America means to other countries and cultures. Consider the massive appeal of a program such as Dallas, sold in 91 countries. This program has rearranged the daily lives of millions of people. In West Germany, community groups have changed their meeting times to let members catch the show, while in Italy, restaurateurs count on fewer diners on Dallas nights. One session of the Turkish parliament was cut short so that Pat Aufderheide, a writer based in Washington, D. C. , and contributing editor for In These Times, will be writing periodically for the Observer on cultural matters. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Emmy magazine. members could rush back to their TV sets for the latest episode. And the show is so popular in Israel that during Purim festivities, when children dress up in costume, a new outfit has appeared: a three-piece suit and a Stetson. Part of the explanation for this international addiction may be the very fact that big business is international. The central character could be “any person with power, of any nationality,” one foreign businessman told a Los Angeles Times correspondent surveying attitudes toward the show. But another part of the explanation may be that the series indulges a common love-hate attitude toward Americans, whose international stereotype reeks of crass greed. A Mexican television researcher asserted that “people suppose Dallas presents the image of an American family.” In J. R., the rest of the world may have found the ugliest American. The show can indulge a worldwide fascination with America’s vaunted wealth and power while also confirming the ancient belief that love and loyalty are destroyed by selfish powermongering. American programs always carry messages about manners and mores, and that fact makes them politically sensitive. For instance, state-owned television in Egypt, where an influential minority is fundamentalist Muslim, suspended Dallas last year for its excessive dwelling on wealth, promiscuity, and drinking. In Jordan, where the TV system is also government-owned, Dallas was permitted, but Dynasty was prohibited because one of its characters is a homosexual. Jordan also found The Winds of War unacceptable, for being too pro-Israel. The . biggest recent scandal in Arabworld TV watching, though, found government in complete harmony with popular attitudes. Egyptians were appalled by Sadat, the two-part madefor-TV movie starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as Egypt’s assassinated leader. When it aired in the United States last fall, many Egyptians living in the U.S. complained loudly. They pointed to such gross Americanisms as the film’s showing Sadat kissing his wife in public, something a Muslim official would never do. But they were truly outraged at the movie’s depiction of Nasser \(whose picture still hangs enshrined in homes also claimed that the movie portrayed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war from the Israeli point of view. In Egypt, officials banned the film and launched a boycott of films distributed by the movie’s coproducer, Columbia Pictures. Culture becomes particularly political when it is forbidden, and where American TV has to be smuggled into homes it often takes on added meaning. For example, in China, broadcast signals from Hong Kong can be picked up on antennae jerryrigged under cover of night and dismantled before morning. After a day of shared austerity and hard teamwork, the Chinese can sit down to illicit entertainment. One reported favorite is Hart to Hart, prized for its portrayal of extravagantly decadent lifestyles; another is The Incredible Hulk, that paean to individualistic success through physical force. And the Hulk is, after all, what few Chinese ever are in their daily lives an outsider. In the Soviet Union, where officialdom frowns on flashy consumer lifestyles and where almost no American programs are aired on the huge government-run TV system, videocassete recorders and tapes are the latest fashion. Rock videos cater to the same restless young people who pay sky-high prices for foreign jeans. “Swedish tapes” that is, pornography draw high prices as well. And then there are movies: top hits on cassette last year were films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Clockwork Orange, both with themes of individual civil rights. Also popular were The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, which make critical .comments about America’s role in Vietnam. However it is received and however devious its route, the made-for-TV version of American life does reach .around the globe. Still, sometimes a show simply doesn’t make the crosscultural leap, no matter how universal its mythology or how glitzy its style. Sociologists are stewing over why Dallas bombed in Japan, where it was unable to attract even a 5 percent primetime audience. And sometimes not even the snazziest imported entertainment can compete with local interests: in Canada, hockey programs can be depended upon to outdraw the top-rated TV shows beamed in from the states. BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Is J.R. the Ugly American? By Pat Aufderheide THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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