Glocalization, Viacom Style

I was reading Anthony Fung’s piece on Viacom’s strategy in China, and I started thinking: What does Chinese content mean for Viacom? The political barriers are not insurmountable, and it is abundantly clear why global media corporations want to enter the Chinese market. But when they do, what do they have to offer?I found this video from the 2006 CCTV MTV Music Awards. The artist, Tata Young, is a highly successful Thai-American singer, actress, and model.

My succinct description of Tata actually doesn’t do her much justice. She’s not just a singer; she’s a brand, a new type of celebrity that fits into the global model of media making. The key is to understand her in the grand scheme of glocalization. What I mean by this is that she is interchangeable. If we replace her with Jennifer Lopez, would anyone tell the difference?

What is glocalization? We know globalization has to accelerated cultural exchanges. Glocalization the interaction of global and local. It produces hybrids by incorporating elements of local culture and global culture into a new mix (Robertson, 1995). The results are not always generic; they can be transgressive and innovative:

That was MC Yan. He is an underground hero in Hong Kong, and one of his claims to fame is the fact that he was one of the first graffiti artists to tag the Great Wall of China. He also tagged Hong Kong’s City Hall, using laser technology. He is, however, a man of contrasts.  In 2004, he teamed up with Clot Inc to create a new shoe for Nike. The result was the Nike Air Max 1 NL Premium, a shoe that “pays homage to Chinese culture, the spirit of modern Hong Kong and the Air Max evolution” (Yu-Ming, 2006). What a perfect combination of subculture and global business! It reminds me of what Dick Hebdige had to say about mods. Eventually, transgression gets absorbed into the mainstream. The result can be a shoe.

Try as you may, no successful artist lives their life entirely on the fringes, and glocalization creates new opportunities. Seems to me, though, that you either end up with  the commercialization of transgressive youth culture, like MC Yan’s case, or with generic pop celebrities like Tata Young. She can become the face and the voice for just about anything.

MC Yan, on the other hand, can lend street cred even to Viacom. No, you probably won’t see him get an award from CCTV-MTV, but you will find him on MTV Iggy, Viacom’s latest foray into youth culture. If you miss the good ‘ol days, in which MTV wasn’t full of pseudo celebrities like The Situation and Snookie, Viacom has got you covered. For example, here is a clip where Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan & Kajol explain Islam, and the true meaning of Jihad.

So what happens when Viacom comes to China? First of all, Viacom and the Chinese government have settled into a comfortable partnership. Viacom gets access to the market, and it gets to play cultural gatekeeper. The Chinese government, on the other hand, retains its influence, by establishing  acceptable limits for popular culture, and it gets a seat at the global table. The result is  “a kind of apolitical popular culture concomitant of capitalist consumption” that does not threaten prevailing ideology (Fung, 2006, p. 79).

As I was reading Fung’s article, I could not help but feel his sense of disappointment. He writes that “the state allows these foreign corporations to operate because they produce a predictable and acceptable popular Chinese culture” (p. 82). Did he expect Viacom to behave differently? I mean, I can’t even remember the last time I felt that MTV was being transgressive. He writes about the ability of the state to “flexibly accommodate global capital”, but gives Viacom too much credit. He ambivalently concludes that “either the state counters the global capital, or the liberating force democratizes the state.” I don’t think this is an either/or scenario. This is strategic thinking on Viacom’s part, and if the company was behaving differently in China, I would be more willing to concede the point. They are not; they are a global company that is hungry for content that they can market though their multiple outlets. Viacom is reaching as wide an audience as it possibly can, and some of us can still feel a little rebellious when we listen to MC Yan.



  • Fung, A. (2006). Think globally, act locally: China’s rendezvous with MTV. Global Media and Communication, 2(1), 71-88


Global television: Why we love Idol

In 1971, Ariel Dorfmann and Armand Mattelart published a short book called How to Read Donald Duck. Their analysis of Disney comics worked wonders to popularize the idea of cultural imperialism. Disney, according to the authors, actively disseminated hegemonic ideology. Donald Duck and company “colonized” the world, propounding capitalist values. Even worse, Disney treated the Third World and its inhabitants as uncivilized savages, as inferior beings that needed to be put in their place:

According to Disney, underdeveloped peoples are like children, to be treated as such, and if they don’t accept this definition of themselves, they should have their pants taken down and be given a good spanking. That’ll teach them! When something is said about the child/noble savage, it is really the Third World one is thinking about. The hegemony which we have detected between the child-adults who arrive with their civilization and technology, and the child-noble savages who accept this alien authority and surrender their riches, stands revealed as an exact replica of the relations between metropolis and satellite, between empire and colony, between master and slave. Thus we find the metropolitans not only searching for treasures, but also selling the natives comics (like those of Disney), to teach them the role assigned to them by the dominant urban press. Under the suggestive title “Better Guile Than Force,” Donald departs for a Pacific atoll in order to try to survive for a month, and returns loaded with dollars, like a modern business tycoon. The entrepreneur can do better than the missionary or the army. The world of the Disney comic is self-publicizing, ensuring a process of enthusiastic buying and selling even within its very pages (Dorfmann & Mattelart, 1971).

Cultural imperialism showed a concern over the dominance of Western Culture (American, actually) over the rest of the world. Such dominance threatens the integrity of local cultures, which are mired by the influx of foreign products. The key assumption herein is that media transmits values, and that exposure to foreign media would necessarily lead to support and adoption of negative traits. Communitarian values like solidarity, for example, would be dismissed as inferior, and would be replaced by a capitalist ethos of  individualism and cutthroat competition. Cultural imperialism is just another example of the hegemony of big corporations, of Western companies that use their resources to quash the developing world (Schiller, 1976). At its best, criticism makes us aware of the influence of corporations over cultural production, and the meanings that circulate throughout the world. At its worse, cultural imperialism becomes the machiavellian arm of American interests abroad:

It has been 39 years since Donald Duck, and much has changed. Cultural imperialism still retains its appeal, but media critics have toned down their outrage. There is more awareness of how people consume media, how we are not just passive dupes with empty brains, waiting to be filled. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US media is not the only game in town. In fact, with new theses, like  cultural proximity and asymmetrical interdependence (Straubhaar) media critics have sought to explain media flows, and to bring in a more nuanced view of how the international media industries operate. This, however, does not minimize the importance of the United States media industries. It merely recognizes that the situation is far more complex. Television flows are not one sided; they are multi-polar.


In the cultural imperialism view, a local broadcaster imports canned shows. They do not alter them, or use them as the basis for indigenous production. However, commercial television is a business. Not every imported product is appropriate for the culture, and as Straubhaar suggests, audiences tend to prefer programs that are closely aligned to their culture. If the local industries can afford to produce their own shows, there will be an audience to watch them. The problem is, though, that not everyone can afford indigenous production. Sometimes it is just cheaper to import.

Since the 1980s,  though, television systems have experienced dramatic changes. We have gone from discrete and isolated systems, sometimes protected by the state to ensure the development of local production, to an increasingly liberalized and deregulated arena. Globalization is the mantra of our time. Along with globalization, we have also witnessed unparalleled technological development. We’ve gone from broadcast systems with limited choice, to an overwhelming array of options. We now expect to be entertained, informed, and probably even enlightened at any time we choose.The issue is, however, who will be able to benefit from the demand?

Cultural imperialism critics would answer: America (duh!). Nevertheless, Waisbord (2004) counters “it’s not that simple.” Internationally, the television industries have not remained stagnant and dependent. Companies and corporations like Globo, Televisa, Dori Media, BBC, RTL , and Endemol are powerful contenders in the international television market. Part of their success can be explained through the trade in television formats.

A television format is not just an idea for a show. It is a formula, “a recipe for remaking” (Moran, 2008) a television program. Formats begin as local television shows. They usually garner high ratings during their original run, and then go on to be successful in other countries as well.  Sometimes, as it happened with Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, shows are sold as is, and later sold as a format. In other cases, like Pop Idol, the format is the only thing that circulates. Formats allow local producers to take a bona fide hit, replicate its invariable elements (the basic story, the episodic structure, etc) and create a local adaptation of it, as long as they abide by strict rules set forth in the program bible (Coutas, 2006). Formats legitimize program cloning, by licensing rights. Formats also open up additional sources of revenue, through marketing and merchandising, as well as co-branding and co-sponsoring opportunities (Kretschmer & Singh, 2009). In the United States, for example, Coca Cola, AT&T, and Ford have all been co-sponsors of American Idol. Coca Cola, in particular, is very visible. We are used, by now, to the familiar Coca Cola glasses on the judges’ table, and this season, Coca Cola is using Idol to Vitaminwater Zero (Halperin, 2010).


Without a doubt, Idols is one of the most successful formats around. To date, this format has aired in 43 different countries. Freemantle Media, which is a division of RTL, owns and licenses the rights (Kretschmer & Singh, 2009). Of course, there are many unlicensed versions, like Afghan Star, but even the unlicensed versions retain a similar structure. They hold nationwide auditions, offer biographical segments, hold weekly elimination rounds, and end with a final showdown:

This is how Freemantle describes  Idols:

“Idols is not a singing contest … the genius of Idols as a format is that it is about finding stories and following contestants on their journey. The sheer duration of an Idols series and the number of stages you go through means that you can follow the characters and get a lot of their life’s story. You can trace their development throughout the series and can see a rough diamond being honed towards the end of the journey into a pop star. In UK’s first series of Idols, Gareth Gates (name of a contestant) walks through the door to his audition. He stutters so badly that he can hardly get his name out – the panel who have been sitting through all the 200 very average editions before him are not amused. But when he opens his voice and sings like an angel, everyone’s jaws drop. Hence, it’s not about the singing – it’s about this incredible story and the production team spotsthose stories from the thousands of people that come for auditioning.” Senior Manager, Worldwide Distribution, Fremantlemedia (quoted in Kretschmer & Singh, 2009).

Indonesian Idol: New Celebrities

Every season, Idol manufactures new celebrities. New Kelly Clarksons, Clay Aikens, Fantasias, and Reubens, who are all shining examples of how to succeed in show business by being generic. Penelope Coutas, who analyzed the Idol phenomenon in Indonesia, describes how these celebrities are carefully crafted products, representatives of the Idol brand. The publicists, promoters, producers, and photographers have as much to say about how the idols will look, what they will sing, where they will perform, as the individual idols themselves. Soon enough, you see them every where, peddling just about anything, and becoming an extension of the brand, and of the sponsors. Hence, it is not surprising at all, as Coutas suggests, to see the Indonesian Idols “using Fren network cellular phones while eating Indomie instant noodles (Coutas, 2006, p. 377). Nevertheless, Coutas points out that merchandising specifically linked to Indonesian Idol is no where near the level of American Idol.

Coutas also asks an important question: Is Idol another example of cultural imperialism? Her analysis of Indonesian Idol suggests that it is. The Idola are, essentially, replicating Western pop and rock. Anything Indonesian about it is merely “tokenistic”: they wear Indonesian attire on special occasions, and the audience gets glimpses of their home culture through short biographical segments and visits to the Idolas’ home towns. These elements are part of the program bible, and they are exactly the same in every licensed version of the show. Critics in the local media tend to decry Idol, or suggest that it is a threat to local culture.

Why is this guy speaking and singing in English anyway?

This is, of course, an old argument. It suggests a static view of culture, or of the purity of local culture, which is constantly challenged by foreign influences. This begs the question: what is a pure culture anyway? Furthermore, it points out the inherent contradictions of globalization. We like it because it inserts us into a larger scheme of things, but we fear how it alters what we know. It also betrays a common misconception; many among us seem to think that globalization just started out of the blue, sometime in the 1990s. That is not the case; cross cultural contacts have been going on for centuries. Trade, conquest, colonization have always inserted foreign elements into local realities. The difference is that now we have more of it.

On the other hand, criticism of Indonesian Idol also suggests an entrenched belief in the power of the media, and on the vulnerability of the average citizen. If you like pop culture, in other words, you’re a heathen, you’re uncultured, and unable to appreciate the finer things in life. If you read books, however, you are cultured, you’re a better citizen, and perhaps even deserve to sit in the grown up table because you’re not going to spill anything, and you won’t try to eat steak with a salad fork.



  • Kretschmer, M., Singh, S. (2009), Exploiting Idols: A case study in International Television Format Trading. Bournemouth University (

Telenovelas, queens of the airwaves

He is a wealthy, but spoiled dilettante; she is a poor, hard-working and demure virgin. They meet when she becomes a maid in his mansion, and fall in love, but class differences will keep them apart. However, she is not poor; she is the illegitimate child of a wealthy tycoon, who regrets abandoning her, dies, and leaves her a fortune. Now the lovers can be together. But wait… scheming villains and lustful temptresses still conspire to keep them apart, until the final chapter when the schemers are punished, the good rewarded, and the title characters wed.

In a nutshell, that is the typical storyline of a telenovela. Growing up, I remember watching these over-the-top melodramas, these stories about upward mobility, good and evil, crime and ultimate punishments and rewards. There was always something comforting about them, but as I grew older, there was also something annoying and predictable about the genre. The male leads were always addressed by first and middle name; they were always a Luis Alfredo, Juan Carlos, or Jose Armando, which would certainly sound more aristocratic than just plain Luis, Juan, or Jose. As for the lead women, Maria is a popular name, for obvious reasons. Telenovelas have a Manichean bent; they’re about the struggle of good versus evil, and what spells good more clearly than being named after Jesus’ mother? However, some writers, like the famous Delia Fiallo,  go through phases in which they have a penchant for certain types of names. In Fiallo’s case, what I remember most is her precious stones phase, when her heroines were all named after a precious stone. Hence, Topacio, Rubi, and Esmeralda.

It would be easy to dismiss telenovelas as “high opera in low-cut clothing” (Barrientos, 2006). But that would also be wrong and an oversimplification of the genre, and of the Latin American market for these products. Telenovelas are a significant cultural and economic force within the Latin American television industry. Furthermore, not every production company churns out the same kind of melodramatic fare that has become the canon for telenovelas. As Carolina Acosta states, melodramas may be the obvious example, but that is not all there is. Here’s a link to the talk she gave at MIT on this subject (fast forward to 14:00, or so).

In Colombia RCN and Caracol have produced some of the most successful telenovelas of recent memory, without shying away from controversial subjects, like drug trafficking and Colombia’s obsession with plastic surgery.  El Cartel de los Sapos,  and Sin Tetas no hay Paraiso dealt with these  subjects. Both have had success in international syndication. However, one of the biggest success stories has been RCN’s Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One). Penned by Fernando Gaitan for RCN, this is a telenovela that has been remade 19 times. The original version was sold into syndication and broadcast all over Latin America, in Switzerland, India, Eastern Europe, and China among other countries.

Here are some clips from the intro to different Betty versions

Original Betty – RCN, 1999

Germany, 2005

China, 2008

Vietnam, 2008

I have a theory about the German version. It is the only one that I’ve found where location is important. I asked my students if, knowing anything about recent German history, the city of Berlin would have special significance. Why not Verliebt in Hamburg? One of the responses was very interesting to me. Joe, which is what I’ll call him to preserve anonymity, told me that the title sequence of Verliebt in Berlin was like the one on Frazer. “It’s just an establishing shot, so you’ll know where you are.”

Well, duh! but when you’re looking at media critically, you should take into account the subtle codes that convey other meanings. Berlin is the symbol for a unified nation. An establishing shot that includes the Fernseturm at Alexander Platz (former East Berlin), and the Brandenburger Tor, which was on the border of East and West, deserve a second look. It tells us something about glocalization of content, about how we adapt popular formats and make them relatable to a local audience.

The ease of glocalization, in my opinion, the quality that has made Yo soy Betty la Fea into such an international success. The story is generic. A young woman, who is not very good looking, struggles to find professional success, and love, in a culture that values appearances more than it cares for substance. When the American version premiered in 2006, media commentators hailed it as an underdog story, and reminded everyone that underdogs are lovable (Adalian & Schneider, 2008).


Venezuela and Chavez

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s impossible to understand today’s media landscape without thinking about Hugo Chavez. The controversial Venezuelan president is one of the most media savvy politicians in the Americas. Alo Presidente, Chavez weekly radio/television show, is an unscripted, populist stage, but it serves Chavez well. His countrymen see him as the populist hero, who sings, rides around in tractors, or horses, and explains his hopes, ambitions, dreams, and plans to the average Venezuelan.

Venezuela is technically a free media market. The commercial sector has a long history in the country, and what Chavez has done is curtail their influence. He did not renew the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a media company that supported the 2002 failed coup against Chavez. He has also openly criticized and ridiculed any media outlets that dare speak against him. But it doesn’t stop there, as journalists can probably live with ridicule. Censorship, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. With a new law governing media content, Venezuelan media cannot broadcast anything that can be deemed against national security, they cannot “disrespect” the president or other government officials, and cannot broadcast information that could cause civil unrest, which is a direct jab at the media’s role in the 2002 Coup (Diehl, 2005). RCTV, Venevision, and Globovision strongly supported the coup. However, Chavez only shut down RCTV, surprisingly waiting five years to do so.

Moreover, Chavez’s controversial closing of RCTV is still felt. The station, no longer free to broadcast over the air, made the move to cable and was still available there. However, in late January of 2010, cable companies dropped RCTV and 6 other stations. The reason? they failed to broadcast Chavez’s speeches, and were thus deemed in violation of Venezuelan telecommunications law (Bright, 2010). In 2003, a new statute required all Venezuelan broadcasters to broadcast government announcements in matters including, but not limited to, development policies, education, conservation, and democratic participation. The speeches, probably, fall under any of those rubrics.

Duffy and Everton, in their chapter  in, Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, try to explain the government’s position. To them the measures introduced in the Media Law passed in 2003 are very similar to statutes in place in Canada, Europe, and the United States. They include a ratings system, to protect children, and “prioritize social and cultural objectives above the commercial imperatives of owners” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 137). The authors, who from the tone of their writing, are very much in favor of the Chavez communication policies — in terms of promoting community access to broadcasting, the government has, in fact opened up spaces for marginalized groups — have to rationalize the need for reform. While they admit that “open ended language in these clauses could open the door to authoritarian abuses in the future” (p. 137), they wax optimistically about the Venezuelan experience:

These measures suggest both an innovative model of the state as facilitator of relatively autonomous participatory democratic initiative and also the possibility of a post-neoliberal communicative order based on a radical reconceptualization of democratic communication rights. While history unfortunately offers no guarantees, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a complex political phenomenon with its own potential internal contradictions, it is nonetheless possible that this trajectory of structural media reform could indeed play an important role in the construction of a democratic “socialism for the twenty-first century” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 139)

I do agree that developing a stronger community media fosters greater democratic participation. However, I fail to see how quashing dissent can be liberating to anyone. In fact, I also fail to see how the closing of RCTV can be construed as anything other than censorship. In 2007, as the closing was announced, Reuters suggested that the big beneficiary from the closing would be Venevision, another one of Venezuela’s top media companies. Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevision, is also part-owner of Univision. He met with Chavez, according to Reuters, and agreed to stop criticizing the government. In return, Venevision had its license renewed, while RCTV, who became even more virulent, lost its license (Reuters, 2007). I don’t know how these events fit into Duffy and Everton’s rosy views of the Venezuelan media landscape.

Isn’t that interesting?

According to Human Rights Watch, the media laws in Venezuela promote self-censorship. The government can use the legal system to persecute the opposition, which has left the Venezuelan public airwaves practically deprived of opposing viewpoints. Globovision is the only television station left that is still openly critical of the president. In July of 2009, 32 radio stations lost their licenses for the same reason (Human Rights Watch, 2009).




Oh Canada, so close to the US…

If history is right, Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most infamous dictators, once decried his nation was too close to the United States and too far away from God. Canada, though not as dramatically, might feel the same about the neighborhood. The God issue is another subject altogether.

Nevertheless, proximity to the United States has been an extremely influential factor in the development of Canadian culture. This is a practical matter, because no nation develops a sense of self without defining what makes them different from other nations around it. We can’t deny, however, that the United States and Canada do share commonalities; they were both colonized by the British, and both share the English language. Yet the differences are also striking. For example, where Americans describe their nation as a melting pot, Canadians consider theirs as a mosaic, a multicultural state, in which different groups are not expected to assimilate. Instead, they co-exist, or so it goes. Whether or not the coexistence is harmonious, or equitable, is debatable, but the fact that Canadians claim it is worth noting as an important ideological difference. And it does not end there. The political system (parliamentary), bilingualism (because of Quebec), and even the fact that Canada remained under British rule until the twentieth century contrast starkly with the American experience.

How does broadcasting fit into this picture? According to Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadians view telecommunications and broadcasting as crucial for the development of the nation. This should not come as a surprise since Canada, after all, is the second largest country in the world (the United States is the third). The problem is that Canada is also sparsely and unevenly populated. The eastern seaboard, which includes Ontario and Quebec, and the areas around the US border are the most demographically dense, whereas the central and northern portions of the country are not densely populated at all. Still, a nation does not exist without internal cohesion. Transportation, telecommunications, and broadcast systems are part of this process, as Arpin reminds us:

With the possible exception of the development of a national railway system in the 1800s, few industries have played as important a part in unifying Canada as telecommunications, broadcasting and satellite distribution of signals. From the days of the telegraph, and from the introduction of radio and television, we have understood that these technologies are powerful tools that allow Canadians to connect with each other across great distances, help develop our economy, shape our national identity and assert our cultural sovereignty (Arpin, 2007).

The last sentence is the  key to Canadian broadcasting philosophy: it views telecommunications and information technologies as “tools” that support national development, both economic and cultural. Furthermore, broadcasting in Canada, at least in terms of philosophy, is about nation building, about creating a common culture through a shared media experience.

The quest for cultural sovereignty, Canadian style

Sovereignty is a quality of nation states. In political theory, it indicates that a state has control over a territory, and, with autonomy, can exercise political power through policy, law, and/or coercive means. Cultural sovereignty, in the Canadian case, suggests independence; it implies the ability to produce an autonomous culture, that is distinctly Canadian (i.e. not American).Yet, sharing a border, as I stated previously, has complicated Canada’s quest for cultural sovereignty. Once broadcasting began, in the early years of the twentieth century, the situation became even more complex because you obviously could not stop radio waves at the border. They spilled into Canadian territory from the United States, and interfered with Canadian signals. According to Skinner (2008), some American stations were “explicitly built to broadcast over the border and exploit Canadian advertising markets” (p.). Regulation was first introduced not just to bring order into chaos, but to extend sovereignty to the Canadian airwaves.

This is the recurring theme of Canadian broadcasting, and it is an issue that kept Canada from following the British broadcasting model too closely. Like the British did, Canada also envisioned a strong public broadcaster, that would “inform, enlighten, and entertain” (Broadcasting Act of 1991, I(l)) the Canadian public. Furthermore, they originally intended for this public broadcaster to take over all aspects of broadcasting in Canada, that is, it would not only provide services, but also regulate the operations of commercial broadcasters. However, Canada is not Great Britain. License fees, first of all, would have been completely impractical because people had more choices. Nevertheless, Canadian regulators believed that they could fund public broadcasting through other means, through government allocations, or by instituting the obligation to carry Canadian content. Early on, it became clear that the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) never had enough funding to live up to these expectations. As a consequence, Canada developed a mixed system, which now, following the passage of the 1991 Broadcasting Act, includes public, commercial, and community broadcasters. With technological advances, like cable, satellite, and the Internet, cultural sovereignty became even more elusive.

Canadian Content

For me, one of the most interesting, albeit frustrating, facets of the Canadian broadcasting system is the issue of Canadian Content. All players in the system are supposed to provide Canadian content, and abide by the quotas established by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But what is Canadian content? Let’s look at some Canadian television shows and see if we can figure it out.

According to the CRTC, Canadian Content is defined by specific criteria, none of which seem to have anything to do with content itself. Music, for example, qualifies as Canadian if it fulfills any two of the following conditions: it is produced in Canada, performed by a Canadian, composed by a Canadian, or performed and/or recorded in Canada. Television programming, on the other hand, is Canadian if the producer and key staff are Canadian, by how much money is spent in services provided by Canadians, and by how much money was spent on lab processing done in Canada. Co-productions can also qualify as Canadian content, provided that Canadians hold 50% of the investment and receive 50% of the profits. Cable and pay per view systems also abide by Cancon rules, but those decisions are made on a case by case basis (Media Awareness Network).

As it stands, the CBC provides most of the Canadian content because, according to Cancon rules, 60% of the programming aired daily between 6 am and midnight, must be Canadian. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, are not bound by this requisite. They only have to air 60% overall, for the year, and of this 60%, half must be broadcast between 6 pm and midnight.

The Cancon Rules leave plenty of leeway to Canadian commercial broadcasting. They exemplify the liberalization and de-regulation policies that are meant, in theory, to make countries more competitive in a global economy. The other side of that coin is, though, that commercial broadcasters have very little incentive to produce Canadian content that reflects Canadian culture in any explicit manner because, as Skinner suggests:

Not only [is] Canadian programming more expensive to produce than foreign programs [are] to buy, but if a Canadian program [is] scheduled to replace a foreign program – even if it drew as large an audience as it replaced – any return on investment would be roughly equivalent to that of the imported program” (Skinner, 2008).

Media Concentration

In Canada, media ownership is heavily concentrated. Currently, three private companies — CTVGlobemedia, Canwest, and Rogers Broadcasting — dominate Anglophone television sector.  Quebecor and Remstar control the Francophone sector (CRTC, 2009).

The latest controversy: Fee for Carriage

Canadian television broadcasting faces the same challenges that other systems are facing. For one, it is not easy to protect local broadcasters from the competition they face from Satellite and Cable, or from the Internet. Audience fragmentation is very real, in spite of the overwhelming media concentration of Canadian media, or of the regulations that are meant to protect Canadian  productions.

In 2008, one of the most heated debates regarding broadcast policy was about fee for carriage. In a nutshell, Canadian media companies, spearheaded by CTVGlobemedia and Canwest, presented a fee-for carriage proposal to the CRTC. They argued that the economic crisis  had forced them to take drastic budget cutting measures, including layoffs, and program cuts. The solution, or at least something that would slow the crisis down, was fee-for carriage. Under this scheme, CRTC would mandate cable and satellite providers to pay Canadian companies  50 cents per subscriber for the right to carry their signal.

In November, CRTC denied the request. Instead, they passed the following policies:

  • Beginning August 31, 2011 distributors (cable and satellite companies) can offer channels to customers in an a la carte fashion (instead of the current system where subscribers buy a basic cable package and then purchase themed bundles of additional channels). This gives viewers more direct choice in the channels they watch.
  • Effective Sept. 1, 2009, a new fund will support the creation of local content (i.e. TV news) by conventional broadcasters in markets with fewer than a million people. Broadcast distributors currently provide 5% of their revenues to fund production of Canadian programming. This will be increased to six percent, with the extra 1% benefiting this new Local Programming Improvement Fund. The CRTC said it expected the cost of the fund – totaling around $60 million annually – not to be passed to subscribers (i.e. our bills wont go up to pay for the fund). However, cable and satellite TV operators aren’t happy about the increase and have indicated to the press that anytime their expenses go up, the consumer pays one way or another.
  • Currently a U.S. channel that offers similar programming to a Canadian specialty channel can be barred from entry into our broadcast market. However, the CRTC has decided that Canadian news and sports services are financially healthy and already face competition so new foreign services will be allowed. As a result, expect more American sports and news channels on your TV program guide once this ruling takes effect in 2011.

(Binning, 2009)

I can’t get over the fact that Canada now has ala carte cable. But that’s an entirely different matter. I guess it is far more important to ponder whether or not Canadians have created a broadcasting system that enhances cultural sovereignty.  In terms of organization, they recognize the role of three components in over the air broadcasting. In terms of structure, media concentration in the commercial sphere is severe. In terms of regulations, generating Canadian content has been a major concern, but the nature of that content is loosely defined as economic participation, and/or opportunities for Canadians. With this in mind, Cancon regulations do not facilitate productions with strong cultural elements, especially in the private sector. After all, Canadian producers still want to compete in the international market, and out there, Degrassi is easier to sell than Little Mosque.

In other words, the answer to my question is yes and no. Yes, because the regulations and philosophy of the system are unique and different, and no because the context in which operations occur, and the pressures from in a commercial environment are important deterrents.




Italy: Berlusconi’s Media Playground?

Even before I ever began researching, writing, and comparing media systems around the world, I was familiar with the name Silvio Berlusconi. I knew him as Italy’s prime minister, and also as the billionaire media mogul. I did not know, however, that he and Rupert Murdoch used to be buddies, but are now rivals, or that Berlusconi is the co-owner of Endemol, the Dutch production company that brought us Big Brother (Osborne, 2007; Israely, 2009). Clearly, it would be futile to try to understand the landscape of Italian television today without Berlusconi.

But how did such degree of media concentration and power come about? I mean, Berlusconi did not just materialize from ether. He, like any other industrialist/politician, is the product of a political, social, and economic environment. At least that would be what author’s Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini would argue. They suggest, in Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, that political institutions, beliefs, traditions, power-sharing agreements, economic variables, and the evolution of civil society influence the development of the media system. Their thesis, though similar to that espoused in Four Theories of the Press, is not as deterministic or as simple. That is, where Siebert, Peterson, and Schramn, the authors of of Four Theories of the Press, proposed four models — authoritarian, the liberal, the social responsibility, and the Soviet Totalitarian — to explain media behavior, and believed that differences between them were about philosophy,  Hallin and Mancini believe the picture is more complex. There are no ideal types, and the purpose of studying media comparatively should not be limited to pointing out failures. In other words, we should not expect media in different countries to follow a liberal model, which was the ideal for Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Instead, we should try to understand the key influences that make them different, and the layers of complexity that make them contradictory:

The Liberal Model enshrined in normative theory, based primarily on the American and to a somewhat lesser extent the British experience, has become so widely diffused around the worlds – partly, as Blanchard (1986) points out, as a result of campaign mounted by the U.S. government and press in the early years of the Cold War — that other conceptions of journalism often are not conceptualized clearly even by their own practitioners. Even within the United States, the normative ideal of the neutral independent watchdog leads to blind spots in journalists’ understanding of what they do [...]. The gap between ideal and reality is far greater in countries such as Italy or Spain where journalists will express allegiance to the Liberal model of neutrality and objectivity, while the actual practice of journalism is deeply rooted in partisan advocacy traditions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 13-14).

So, what key influences should we look at to try to unravel the Italian media system? According to Hallin and Mancini, we should look at (1) the development of media markets, (2) political parallelism, (3) the development of journalistic professionalism, and (4) degree and nature of state intervention.

Development of Media Markets

For Hallin and Mancini, this category describes when, how, and which types of media develop in a nation. For example, in the United States, newspapers “tend to be addressed to the mass public” (p. 22), whereas in Southern Europe, which includes Italy, they are usually geared to the elites. Some countries, furthermore, have a national media, while others have regional and local media.

Political Parallelism

The media, all claims to the contrary, is never truly impartial, or truly disengaged from political power. Hallin and Mancini explain this relationship through the variable of political parallelism, which they define as “the extent to which the different media reflect distinct political orientations in their news and current affair s reporting, and sometimes also the entertainment content” (p. 28).


This dimension refers to whether or not the media are autonomous. That is, whether or not the individuals that produce content for media organizations can work with relative lack of pressure from, either, owners, or the government. Professionalism also refers to the existence of ethical norms, which, in the case of broadcasting service, include the obligation to serve the public.

State Role

States shape the media system by enacting policies and regulations, by granting subsidies, and by protecting local media production from outside competition, among other tools. States can also intervene through outright ownership of the media, and through funding.

The Model at work in Italy: How did we get to Berlusconi?

Lets see how useful Hallin and Mancini’s model is to explain the Italian situation. First, the media in Italy did not develop as nation-wide markets. They were, and remained for the most part, local and regional in character. Furthermore, the press, and the media by extension, developed with strong party affiliations, with papers like L’Unita (Communist Party), Il Popolo (Christian Democrats), and l’Avanti (Socialists), and l’Ossevatore Romano, which is the official paper of the Catholic Church, and one of the most influential dailies in the country. Hiring practices in all of these outlets reflected ideological commitments. Moreover, fascism exacerbated the political affiliations of the press:

Under Fascism, of course, the media were expected to serve political ends – Mussolini was a journalist. And with the Liberation the first newspaper licenses went to anti-fascist political forces [...]. The party press was extremely important in the immediate post liberation period (Hallin & Mancini, 100).

In terms of political parallelism, the practice of lottizzazione is prevalent, in public broadcasting (RAI) and commercial media (Hibberd, 2007). As in the UK, RAI was established by government charter, and given public service obligations. RAI also held a monopoly over broadcasting, which remained in effect until 1976 (Hibberd, 2004; 2007). The Christian Democratic Party was in control of policy, programming, and operations until 1963, when the Socialists began joining government coalitions, and were given roles in the direction of the institution.  The power sharing arrangement is known as lottizzazione.

Lottizzazione is a distinctive characteristic of the Italian media system, and it speaks to its level of professionalization and independence. It parcels out control over public broadcast media, among other public services, between different political forces. Lottizzazione, according to Padovani, determined not only how the RAI was carved up, but who would be hired to work there:

During the first decades of television broadcasting, journalists’ entry into RAI was determined by political and social homogeneity with the government party. In some cases the broadcaster itself trained its journalists, who were chosen from among young intellectuals, often in line with the dominant ideology of the time. Candidates were selected upon the recommendations of political leaders and friends of the director general and, only on rare occasions, they were selected from among the winners of national exams. Selection procedures, which consisted mostly of interviews, written and oral tests, and professional tests, were often fictitious, while determinant factors were personal and party connection and the “right recommendation (Padovani, 162).

Hibberd (2007) traces the institutionalization of Lottizzazione to around 1975, which was the year in which the Broadcasting Act divided the RAI into two networks:

The formation of two networks facilitated the creation of two broad ideological camps: the first for a Catholic culture and the second for a lay culture, with the result that the two camps were gradually subjected to political control. RAI was effectively partitioned along party lines running from the President (Socialist) and the Director General (Christian Democrat) down to the TV and radio networks, Raiuno (Christian Democrat) and Raidue (Socialist). Radio channels came under the sphere of influence of minor government parties (p. 885).

In terms of the role of the state, it is important to first understand how the state is organized to exercise power. Italy has enjoyed formal democracy since the mid 1800, when electoral laws were first introduced. These laws, however, only extended suffrage to landowners, and literate, male individuals. Universal male suffrage was established in 1913, and universal suffrage came about in 1946, which is when Italy became a Republic. In 1948, Italy adopted parlamentarism as a form of political organization of the government. Under parliamentary systems, voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, elect the President, who holds ceremonial power. The president, in turn, names the Prime Minister, who holds executive power; he/she forms the government, by selecting the members of the Council of Ministers. The system, though modeled after British parlamentarism, has been notably unstable, as there have been at least 60 different governments since 1945 (US State Department, 2009).

As stated previously, RAI held a monopoly over broadcasting until 1976, when the Courts decided to allow commercial broadcasting based on the fact that “technical advances meant that television frequencies were no longer as scarce as they once were and commercial broadcasting could be permitted at a local level” (p. Hibberd, 2006, p. 886). However, the Courts left the system unregulated until the passage of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The lack of regulation not only allowed for the proliferation of local channels, it also opened the door to Silvio Berlusconi, whose company, Fininvest, “gained gradual control of the commercial television market” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 886). By 1980, Berlusconi had almost achieved national coverage. By 1984, through acquisitions, he was RAI’s only national competitor. Though the Italian courts revoked his license that same year, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi reopened them by decree. Since Craxi was a personal friend of Berlusconi’s, the decree known as the Berlusconi Decree is an obvious example of political clientelism (Hibberd, 2007).

Who is this guy? And why does he matter

Berlusconi is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Italy. He is a media mogul, and according to Forbes, he has more money than Rupert Murdoch (Forbes, 2009). Through his family’s holding company, Fininvest, he has controlling interests over Mediaset, the largest private media company in Italy, the AC Milan, Mondadori publishing, Il Giornale newspaper, and over 100 companies more. Foreign Policy magazine described him, in 2009, as “a master of legal maneuvering” who has managed to avoid jail for corruption, tax evasion, and embezzlement, and has been elected prime minister 3 times in spite of it all. His trials and tribulations involve a sex scandal, a high profile divorce, and ever-recurrent embezzlement allegations. Here is what BusinessWeek has to say about his latest brush with Italian law:

The latest probe, dubbed Mediatrade-Rti, is an offshoot of investigation that led to one of those trials. In that trial, the premier and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s TV networks and pocketing the differences (D’Emilio, 2010).

What a guy, and what a system! Berlusconi, his critics say, exercises and incredible degree of control over Italian broadcasting. Hibberd points out that he has used his position to advance Mediaset’s interests, and to unermine the RAI. Hence, in this sense, “Berlusconis’s conflicts of interest are very real and are detrimental to the economic and cultural development of media in Italy.” However, Hibberd also indicates a measure of pluralism, as the system offers a wide array of media choices (2007). Consequently, he argues that it is too simplistic to blame everything on Berlusconi, or to accuse him of controlling 90% of Italian media. The problems, in fact, pre-date the controversial media mogul, as they may be linked to “the slow development of democratic norms and practices” which include “the lack of effective safeguards guaranteeing essential media freedoms” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 29).

Personally, I believe Berlusconi is a creature of his environment. He has benefited from the institutions, practices, and political arrangements that have plagued Italian politics since the early days of the unification of the peninsula. Since the problems are structural, you cannot expect them to go away by wishing them out, or even by jailing Berlusconi. Political systems and practices do not change overnight, and in Italy’s case, the lack of separation between public and private interests will keep the door open to further encroachment upon the public sphere. The Internet, apparently, is next on the list, as Berlusconi’s government is seeking control “over online video content and force anyone who regularly uploads videos to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications” (Israely, 2009). The legislation will also require sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, as well as blogs and other online content providers, to screen video uploads for pornography and violence. Fines for non-compliance will range from about $210 to $210,000 should the law pass (Barry, 2010).

It will be interesting to see how this law, which some experts believe is a direct challenge to Google, plays out. Berlusconi’s government argues that they are only attempting to enforce the European Union directive “to set up media rules” (Barry, 2010), yet only the Italians have taken it as far.

Did anyone say China?




Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (or BBC heaven?)

In 1922, the British government granted six radio manufacturing companies a license to start radio broadcasting. That was the beginning of the British Broadcasting Company, which would become the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927. About 70 years later, Mike Myers was asking whether we’d make him tea, and if we would turn on the tele to the BBC. And though this was probably not intended as a tribute, it certainly shows how influential the BBC has been. Its significance, both in terms of establishing a paradigm for public broadcasting, and as producer and distributor of cultural products is hard to rival.

It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that any exploration of broadcasting in the United Kingdom not only begins with the BBC, but also seems to revolve around it. David Ward’s chapter, included in Television and Public Policy: Change and Continuity in an Era of Global Liberalization, deals extensively with the BBC. British broadcasting, states Ward, owes its character to the philosophy of public service established by the BBC Charter. However, even stable systems must adapt to changing times, and Ward provides us with an overview of the challenges that affect British broadcasting in general. Multichannel television services, the digital transition, and an increasingly competitive global marketplace have caused dramatic shifts the policies and structure of British broadcasting.

The public interest: a philosophy of broadcasting

In Britain, unlike the United States, broadcasting developed first as a public service, and it was not until the 1950s when commercial broadcasting received a license to operate. However, even the commercial broadcasters were expected to fulfill public service obligations. In other words, they were expected to follow the lead of the BBC, whose public service mandate is encompassed in the phrase “to inform, to educate, and to entertain.” Though this mantra was first advocated by David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC and RCA,  the BBC, under the direction of John Reith, embraced it wholeheartedly. I don’t think anyone would say that NBC did the same.

To inform, educate, and entertain, in its current formulation, means the following for the BBC:

  • Universality of access and appeal
  • Quality
  • Independence and impartiality
  • Distinctiveness (covering underserved areas, or areas not reached by commercial broadcasters)
  • Encouraging culture and creativity
  • Supporting national life and contributing to democratic debate.
  • Reflecting the UK’s nations, regions, and communities.
  • Playing a leading role in technological development (Digital Britain)

(BBB, 2006)

Under Reith, the BBC reached important milestones. It was the only independent broadcaster to cover the general strike of 1926, it broadcast the abdication speech of Edward VIII, and the it expanded its radio reach to the entire British empire. However, Reith was also well-known for his religious conservatism, which he brought to the BBC. His influence on matters of programming was so important, than to this day, the British refer to the BBC as auntie:

At one time ’Auntie’, the BBC, closed down for an hour or so at 6pm, so that mothers could put the little ones to bed, without distraction. Well, don’t you think it would be a great idea if television closed down now at 6pm, so that families could sit down together and have an evening meal around the table and just talk? (Griffin, 2009)

Auntie knew best; she knew how to inform you, how to educate you, but was not very good at entertaining you, at least, not in the sense of providing you with popular culture fare. Reith would not even consider it; he believed that the BBC should improve the lowbrow tastes of some of its audience by exposing them to quality programming. This is what he had to say about Jazz:

Jazz in its place is all right, but do you not agree that it has got altogether out of its place in the life and interest of a considerable section of the community, and that tot to some extent anyhow it is degrading? (Reith Memo, 1937).

Clearly Reith thought that the BBC should not “cater down on the “give the public what it wants” basis” (Reith Memo, 1937), and since the BBC had a monopoly, it could afford to be dismissive. However, beginning in the 1950s, commercial broadcasting was licensed in Britain. The BBC, though remaining in an advantageous position, now had competition.

Ward reminds us, nonetheless, that even with the introduction of commercial broadcasting, the landscape did not widen until the 1980s. The BBC and ITV lived, to use his formulation, in a comfortable duopoly. Furthermore, because commercial broadcasters were expected to uphold similar public service obligations as the BBC, one of the key philosophical elements of British broadcasting remained virtually untouched. Only with the introduction of satellite did these time-honored tenets begin to crack.

Liberalization to compete globally

Ward does a good job in explaining the transition, in terms of policy, from strict regulations to a more liberalized environment. Thatcherism was an important factor.

Thatcherism refers to the policies advocated by Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister in the 1980s. Thatcher was a firm believer in free market economics, privatization , and deregulation. Though many public services were privatized under Thatcher, the BBC was not to be one of them. Yet the duopoly would be challenged through the introduction of new channels, like Channel 4 and 5, and the development of satellite and cable.

With liberalization came the push to become more competitive. Though the BBC still does not broadcast commercial advertising, it had to develop additional revenue sources. This led to the establishment of BBC Worldwide and BBC Resources Ltd.

This is a summary of the sales revenue generated by BBC Worldwide in 2008/09 (in millions of pounds). Total sales = 1,004 Million Pounds, with profits of 103 Million Pounds (Annual Review, 2009)

Interestingly enough, BBC Worldwide’s (BBCWW) success has brought about calls for regulation, and even for stripping away its ability to engage in commercial activities. In 2007, the BBC Trust, which oversees the BBC, forbade BBCWW from expanding its activities through mergers and acquisitions. The decision was prompted by BBCWW’s controversial purchase of 75% of Lonely Planet Publishing. However, the Trust did not order the BBC to sell LPP. Instead, Michael Lyons, chairman of the Trust, said that this would come “under review”.

The controversy over the expansion of BBC WW is an interesting case. I think it does indicate how  British broadcasting is changing, and how, as Ward suggests, because its public service mandate is very loosely defined, the BBC is very vulnerable to accusations of unfair competition and monopoly. Now, I’m not saying that the BBC plays fair. After all, they still collect the lion’s share of the license fee. However, when the CEO of NewsCorp, of all possible media companies, is one of the people crying foul, and even suggesting that this is “nationalisation”, I have to quietly laugh.