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.

McTV?

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).

Idols

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.

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References

  • Kretschmer, M., Singh, S. (2009), Exploiting Idols: A case study in International Television Format Trading. Bournemouth University (http://tvformats.bournemouth.ac.uk)
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