March 19, 2008
MIT Communications Forum on Global Television (1 of 2)

The following post comes from CMS graduate student Lan Le, who attended the recent MIT Communications Forum called Global Television. An audio version of the event is available here.

A feature of emerging television is the increasing global profile of programs appealing more widely across national boundaries, a kind of global programming. Big Brother is an example of the wide appeal of this competition-based reality programming, which has been adapted to different national contexts. Fiction shows like Ugly Betty require only a small amount of adaptation before release in the US. And a great deal of American television, like Lost or Desperate Housewives, now finds enthusiastic audiences in other countries.

These global flows of television are accompanied by country specific promotion strategies to frame the show for national contexts. But are we moving beyond nationally specific interests to a global village of television? This forum will also consider the impact of American programming on the world, especially how the world reacts, adapts to, and utilizes American TV formats.

The following are summaries of the speaker's remarks for the forum.

William Uricchio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Television has very national histories; many countries claim television as their own invention. Television technology actually emerged simultaneously in a very short period of time in several places, and is actually, in fact, a very global technology. Despite its global origins, America aggressively pushed television as an American invention and concept through a special agency in the American government after the World Wars. American exportation of television framed itself as a way to conquer and civilize the world.

The American government's cultivation of television's place broad took place in several ways:

1. Tax breaks for television producers.
2. Facilitate salesmen making rounds to foreign countries. The US state department helped to make this happen.
3. Cultural and student exchanges, tours, educational trips.
4. Sending producers abroad to watch international production of TV, study genres, etc.

To increase the sales of television programs abroad:

1. America relied on program exchanges with other countries, and
2. format exchanges.

The mentality surrounding TV varies between countries and social situations. For example, educated people generally do not see value in television and its programming. Abroad, however, television is regarded as good if it is made by Americans. Only Americans can make good television, because of the professionalization of the industry, the sophisticated production methods, and the resources available to Americans. The way Americans produce television very much structures European television-making as well.

TV remains a very contested space in Europe because broadcasting is historically part of the public sphere. Television broadcasting in Europe has a public obligation, emerges from the public. It's role is to exchange views, debate, and carry on the important discourse of the nation. The viewer in Europe is constructed as a citizen, whereas in the US, the viewer is constructed as a consumer. TV in American is considered part of the market place because of its economic structure and the commerical roots of its development. This difference lingers in Europe, coloring the way Europe constructs television programming despite the influx of paid television and commercial programming.

TV is a one-way flow out of America, perhaps because the US is very intolerant of foreign languages on television. The television-viewing experience is often different abroad because American TV shows are broadcast in environments where commercials are taken out. The narrative of an American television show is considered very action packed in Europe, which puts pressure on European producers to do the same. Younger foreign audiences are drawn to American TV because of its perceived vitality and high redundancy. This is an interesting aesthetic consequence of our commercial, ratings-based economic structure, but is received abroad as a cultural fact. Conversely, HBO programming is sometimes shown in contexts where commercials puncture the flow of the television show, reversing the viewing environment.

Formats are part of the global exchange of television, which began as a kind of "polite plagiarism." The actual licensing of formats did not begin until the 1970s. For example, from 1958-1959, game shows became popular globally, the format being taken up in many countries and localized for these audiences. In Europe, the quiz shows asked questions about knowledge instead of trivial facts, lingering evidence of the public nature of TV in this region. The 'anchor man' is another example of an American format invention, but this format did not penetrate Europe until 1970s. Format carryover, the flow of television formats to the US, became permitted by deregulation in Europe. Most formats, however, were still driven by US model of TV. With format localization, cultural differences are really distinct. The framework really highlights and foregrounds the differences of countries, especially in dating shows.

The remainder of Lan's notes will be available tomorrow here on the Consortium's blog.