We Aren’t the World

Tuesday April 08, 2003

In the mid-1990s, the well- known French filmmaker Claude Berri warned that without protection from American cultural exports, “European culture is finished.” He had plenty of pessimistic company. In that era, French Culture Minister Jack Lang spoke in terms of America’s irrepressible “cultural imperialism.” Strict programming quotas were enacted to prevent U.S.-made TV shows from overwhelming foreign prime time. 

Meanwhile, scholars such as Herbert Schiller had worked out theories explaining how the American political empire was founded on its expanding communications empire, and critics such as Ariel Dorfman were busy publicizing the poisonous imperialistic messages buried in the adventures of such despoilers as Donald Duck. 

But mounting evidence suggests that all this fulmination has been entirely pointless, and that cultural pessimists have been as clueless about the processes shaping the world as were their social, economic, and political forebears. 

In January The New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that American TV programs had largely lost their appeal for overseas audiences. 

“Given the choice,” wrote London-based reporter Suzanne Kapner, “foreign viewers often prefer homegrown shows that better reflect local tastes, cultures and historical events.” Many foreign networks had been created in a wave of 1980s privatization and lacked the financial and creative resources to produce their own programming. For a while, the most effective way to fill their schedules was by purchasing shows, especially American-made series. But as U.S. producers continued to drive up the price of their products, the now more-experienced broadcasters opted to make their own programs. 

The foreign broadcasters chose neither to whine about nor to spin theories about American culture but rather to compete with it. As of 2001, more than 70 percent of the most popular shows in 60 countries were produced locally. There are still popular American shows on foreign TV sets, but as one European broadcaster told the Times, “You cannot win a prime-time slot with an American show anymore.” 

In 2001 "business for American films overseas fell by 16 percent against local product,” according to Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur. Writing last August in the British newspaper The Guardian, Kapur noted: “The biggest success in Japan last year was not an American film, it was a Japanese film. The biggest success in Germany was not an American film, it was a German film. The biggest success in Spain was not an American film, but a Spanish film. The same in France. In India, of course, it’s always been like that.” 

Kapur believes that “American culture has been able to dominate the world because it has had the biggest home market.” But the growing commercial importance of Asia — China, India, Japan — along with the larger markets of the Mideast and North Africa will change that, he argues. In other words, cultural globalization is far from a recipe for American dominance; it is an opportunity for other cultures and markets to assert themselves. 

It is the smart cultures who are competing with the U.S. Indeed, it is American producers who have lately been borrowing cultural ideas, just to stay competitive. Reality TV, surely the most reviled — if popular — format now on American screens, comes from Europe.