March 20, 2008
MIT Communications Forum on Global Television (2 of 2)

This followup to yesterday evening's post comes from CMS graduate student Lan Le, who is reporting on the MIT Communications Forum called Global Television. An audio version of the event is available here. The previous post from Lan summarized the comments of C3 Principal Investigator William Uricchio. This post looks at the comments of Roberta Pearson and Eggo Müller.

Roberta Pearson (University of Nottingham)

Pearson began her talk with a billboard advertisement for American television in the UK. The slogan is "Who says nothing good ever came out of America," and features "respectable" television actors and producers like Spike Lee or William H. Macy. This example shows the way American television is framed and positioned in the UK.

ITV was the first appearance of private TV in the UK. Initially controversial, ITV was accused of dumbing down television content and general vulgarity. Part of this accusation stemmed from ITV's need for ready content and its subsequent purchase of American television shows to fill in the programming gaps. In the UK, catering to minority interests does exist on other channels, but the UK has half as many channels as the US, a lot of which is probably carrying US content.

American television was controversial in the UK beginning in the late 70s and early 80s when Dallas was popular in the UK. This popularity was seen as problematic because so many people watched the program, igniting general national uneasiness. Now, the popularity of American TV is not unlike that of Dallas in the 1980's. This popularity of American television is supported in part from the budget squeeze abroad, making the purchase of American TV economical and attractive. US producers depend a lot on foreign revenue streams for this reason. Another aspect of the attractiveness of buying American television content is due to its high production values.

Television is seen to be like film -- that is to say, very good quality. It represents the best and most original programming, rendering local television production unable to compete with US TV's real or perceived quality. In fact, the perception abroad is that American television is better than film, and that the true golden age of TV began with The Sopranos.

The consequence of American television in the UK's mulitchannel environment is very interesting. US shows are inserted in their entirety into a British environment. Doing so brands the content of a channel (channel five) as American. Some channels appeal to the love of American television in its advertising campaigns.

Recently, networks increasingly synchronize the distribution of American media globally, such that the same episodes are being seen across the world, even with the multiple day time difference. It used to take years for other countries to acquire television content, but foreign audiences are seeing their shows at the same time as Americans. Networks began to think more globally in its distribution because they feared loosing money to illegal Internet downloads and also to improve the sale of ancillary products. A good example of this is the Lost alternate reality game. It was important to sync the program distribution so that players could participate globally.

Eggo Müller (Utrecht University)

Television FORMATS are complicated legal constructions. Usually, copyright can only be applied to entities that can be materialized. Ideas and methods of making are, in this case, what is being contested. Now, TV producers pay license fees for format use in other countries.

Formats are totally different from genres. Formats do not just cover key, defining characteristics of a show. They encompass how to produce this show too. TV producers are buying a complicated production process and the experience or knowledge that needed to execute that format. This knowledge comes partly in the form of the "advertising bible," which is also sold with the purchase of a format license. This document is the sum of research into the advertising practices around the show - target audience, which advertisers to court, etc. So it is the experience of producing these shows that is sold to other countries, that the US producers are buying from Europe. The production method of culture is what is being traded.

Formats, when realized in another culture, are not necessarily a production of the foreign culture from which it was purchased. It's a production of that country's own culture. For example, America's Most Wanted is an imitation of Crimewatch UK. Adaptations of this format were perceived abroad, however, as an AMERICAN product, even though it emerged from UK. This is a large part of why this format flopped in France. We cannot necessarily say that these exported formats are encoded with ideologies of a certain country, because the format travels so widely. So the crime reality TV show is not essentially indicative of, say, German culture.

The individual stories that are developed for each particular format tend to be highly national. They contain national hosts, a national sense of humor, a national sense of how to address the contestants, etc. National incidents are created within these formats that do not necessarily translate outside its context. These formats are highly "personalized" to the country.

Europe may export a culture of production, but the production of culture is very local and very national.

Editor's Note: Christopher S. Brown, Managing Editor for New Media for America's Most Wanted, contacted me after this post went up to say that their show (which launched February 1988) more closely resembles and was based upon the German show Aktenzeichen XY...Ungelöst, which premiered in 1967, while Crimewatch UK premiered in 1984.